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Cornell University Library 

BX4220.G7 P88 

Medieval English nunneries c. 1275 to 15 


3 1924 029 414 970 

Cornell University 

The original of this book is in 
the Cornell University Library. 

There are no known copyright restrictions in 
the United States on the use of the text. 


Edited hy G. G. Coulton, M.A. 

Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge 

and University Lecturer in English 



C. F. CLAY, Manager 











(At the top of the picture a priest with two acolytes prepares the sacrament ; behind then 
stand the abbess, holding her staflF, her chaplain and the sacristan, who rings the bell; 
behind them a group of four nuns, including the cellaress with her keys. At the bottom 
is a procession of priest, acolytes and nuns in the quire.) 


c. 1275 'o 1535 




(From the Ellesmere MS.) 




TO ' 

M. G. j. 




THERE is only too much truth in the frequent complaint 
that history, as compared with the physical sciences, is 
neglected by the modern public. But historians have the 
remedy in their own hands; choosing problems of equal 
importance to those of the scientist, and treating them with 
equal accuracy, they will command equal attention. Those 
who insist that the proportion of accurately ascertainable 
facts is smaller in history, and therefore the room for specu- 
lation wider, do not thereby establish any essential dis- 
tinction between truth-seeking in history and truth-seeking 
in chemistry. The historian, whatever be his subject, is as 
definitely bound as the chemist "to proclaim certainties as 
certain, falsehoods as false, and uncertainties as dubious." 
Those are the words, not of a modern scientist, but of the 
seventeenth century monk, Jean Mabillon; they sum up his 
literary profession of faith. Men will follow us in history as 
implicitly as they follow the chemist, if only we will form 
the chemist's habit of marking clearly where our facts end 
and our inferences begin. Then the public, so far from dis- 
couraging our speculations, will most heartily encourage 
them ; for the most positive man of science is always grateful 
to anyone who, by putting forward a working theory, stimu- 
lates further discussion. 

The present series, therefore, appeals directly to that 
craving for clearer facts which has been bred in these times 
of storm and stress. No care can save us altogether from 
error; but, for our own sake and the pubhc's, we have elected 
to adopt a safeguard dictated by ordinary business common- 
sense. Whatever errors of fact are pointed out by reviewers 
or correspondents shall be pubhcly corrected with the least 
possible delay. After a year of pubhcation, all copies shall 
be provided with such an erratum-slip without waiting for 


the chance of a second edition ; and each fresh volume in this 
series shall contain a full list of the errata noted in its 
immediate predecessor. After the lapse of a year from the 
first pubhcation of any volume, and at any time during the 
ensuing twelve months, any possessor of that volume who 
will send a stamped and addressed envelope to the Cambridge 
University Press, Fetter Lane, Fleet Street, London, E.C. 4, 
shall receive, in due course, a free copy of the errata in 
that volume. Thus, with the help of our critics, we may 
reasonably hope to put forward these monographs as roughly 
representing the most accurate information obtainable under 
present conditions. Our facts being thus secured, the reader 
will judge our inferences on their own merits; and something 
will have been done to dissipate that cloud of suspicion 
which hangs over too many important chapters in the social 
and rehgious history of the Middle Ages. 

G. G. C. 

October, 1922. 


THE monastic ideal and the development of the monastic 
rule and orders have been studied in many admirable 
books. The purpose of the present work is not to describe and 
analyse once again that ideal, but to give a general picture 
of English nunnery life during a definite period, the three 
centuries before the Dissolution. It is derived entirely 
from pre-Reformation sources, and the tainted evidence of 
Henry VIII's commissioners has not been used ; nor has the 
story of the suppression of the English nunneries been told. 
The nunneries dealt with are drawn from all the monastic 
orders, except the Gilbertine order, which has been omitted, 
both because it differed from others in containing double 
houses of men and women and because it has already been 
the subject of an excellent monograph by Miss Rose Graham. 
It remains for me to record my deep gratitude to two 
scholars, in whose debt students of medieval monastic history 
must always he, Mr G. G. Coulton and Mr A. Hamilton 
Thompson. I owe more than I can say to their unfailing 
interest and readiness to discuss, to help and to criticise. To 
Mr Hamilton Thompson I am specially indebted for the loan 
of his transcripts and translations of Alnwick's Register, 
now in course of publication, for reading and criticising my 
manuscript and finally for undertaking the arduous work of 
reading my proofs. I gratefully acknowledge suggestions 
received at different times from Mr Hubert Hall, Miss Rose 
Graham and Canon Foster, and faithful criticism from my 
friend Miss M. G. Jones. I have also to thank Mr H. S. 
Bennett for kindly preparing the index, and Mr Sydney 
Cockerell, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, for assistance 
in the choice of illustrations. 


GiRTON College, 

September 1922 




Situation, income and size of the English nunneries . . i 

Nuns drawn from (i) the nobles and gentry .... 4 

(2) the middle class . . . 9 

Nunneries in medieval \viUs 14 

The dowry system 16 

Motives for taking the veil ; 

(i) a career and a vocation for girls .... 25 

(2) a ' dumping ground ' for political prisoners ... 29 

(3) for illegitimate, deformed or half-witted girls ... 30 

(4) nuns forced unwiUingly to profess by their relations . 33 

(5) a refuge for widows and occasionally for wives . . 38 


Superiors usually women of social standing .... 42 

Elections and election disputes .43 

Resignations . . 56 

Special temptations of a superior ; 

(i) excessive independence and comfort .... 59 

(2) autocratic government 64 

(3) favouritism 66 

The superior a great lady in the country side .... 68 

Journeys 69 

Luxurious clothes and entertainments 73 

Picture of heads of houses in Bishop Alnwick's Lincoln visita- 
tions (1436—49) 80 

Wicked prioresses 82 

Good prioresses ^9 

General conclusion : Chaucer's picture borne out by the records 94 


Evidence as to monastic property in 

(i) the Valor Ecclesiasticus -96 

(2) monastic account rolls 97 

Variation of size and income among houses . . . 98 

Methods of administration of estates . . . • ■ 99 

Sources of income: 

(i) rents from land and houses 100 

2) manorial perquisites and grants 103 



{3) issues of the manor i°9 

(4) miscellaneous payments ^^^ 

(5) spiritualities ^^3 

Expenses -'■'■7 

(i) internal expenses of the convent ii9 

(2) divers expenses .... .... 123 

(3) repairs 123 

(4) the home farm . 125 

(5) the wages sheet 129 


The obedientiaries 131 

Allocation of income and obedientiaries' accounts . . . 134 

Chambresses' accounts (clothes) . I37 

Cellaresses' accounts (food) i37 

Servants I43 

(i) chaplain i44 

(2) administrative officials 146 

(3) household staff ... 150 

(4) farm labourers . 150 

Nunnery households 151 

Relations between nuns and servants 154 

Occasional hired labour 157 

Villages occasionally dependent upon nunneries for work . 158 


Poverty of nunneries 161 

(i) prevalence of debt 162 

(2) insufficient food and clothing 164 

(3) ruinous buildings . . 168 

(4) nuns begging alms 172 

Reasons for poverty : 

(i) natural disasters 176 

(2) ecclesiastical exactions and royal taxes . . . . 183 

(3) feudal and other services 185 

(4) right of patrons to take temporalities during voidance . 186 

(5) right of bishop and king to nominate nuns on certain 

occasions 188 

(6) pensions, corrodies, grants and liveries .... 194 

(7) hospitality 200 

(8) htigation 201 

(9) bad management 203 

(10) extravagance 211 

(11) overcrowding with nuns 212 





Methods adopted by bishops to remedy financial distress : 

(i) devices to safeguard expenditure by the head of the house 217 

(2) episcopal licence required for business transactions . 225 

(3) appointment of a custos . . . . . 228 


The education of the nuns : 

Learning of Anglo-Saxon nuns, and of German nuns at a 

later date 

Little learning in English nunneries during the later middle 

ages 238 

Nunnery Ubraries and nuns' books 240 

Education of nuns . 244 

Latin in nunneries .... .... 246 

Translations for the use of nuns 251 

Needlework 255 

Simple forms of medicine 258 

Nunneries as schools for children : 

The education of novices 260 

The education of secular children 261 

Boys . . 263 

Limitations : 

(i) not aU nunneries took children 264 

(2) only gentlefolk taken 265 

(3) disapproval and restriction of nunnery schools by the 

ecclesiasticaJ authorities 270 

What did the nuns teach ? .... . . 274 

Life of school children in nunneries ... . . 279 

' Piety and breeding ' ... 281 


Division of the day by the Benedictine Rule .... 285 

The Benedictine combination of prayer, study and labour 

breaks down 288 

Dead routine 289 

The reaction from routine 290 

(i) carelessness in singing the services 291 

(2) accidia 293 

{3) quarrels 297 

(4) gay clothes 303 

(5) pet animals 305 

(6) dancing, minstrels and merry-making .... 309 





The monastic obligation to (i) communal life, (2) personal 

poverty S^S 

The breakdown of communal life : division into familiae with 
private rooms ... . • ■ ■ • 

The breakdown of personal poverty ... ■ • 3^2 

(i) the annual peculium . . ■ ■ 3^3 

(2) money pittances .... • • 3^3 

(3) gifts in money and kind ... ... 324 

(4) legacies 3^5 

(5) proceeds of a nun's own labour . .... 330 
Private life and private property in the fourteenth and fifteenth 

centuries 33^ 

Attitude of ecclesiastical authorities . ... 336 


Enclosure in the Benedictine Rule . . . . 341 

The movement for the enclosure of nuns . ... 343 

The BuU Periculoso .... ... 344 

Attempts to enforce enclosure in England 346 

Attempts to regulate and restrict the emergence of nuns from 

their houses 353 

The usual pretexts for breaking enclosure : 

(i) illness 361 

(2) to enter a stricter rule 363 

(3) convent business 367 

(4) ceremonies, processions, funerals 368 

(5) pilgrimages . . -371 

(6) visits to friends 376 

(7) short walks, field work .... .381 
The nuns wander freely about in the world . . . 385 
Conclusion . 391 


Visitors in the cloister are another side of the enclosure problem 394 

The scholars of Oxford and Cambridge and the neighbouring 

nunneries 295 

Regulations to govern the entrance of seculars into nunneries: 

(i) certain persons not to be admitted 401 

(2) certain parts of the house and certain hours forbidden . 402 

(3) unsuccessful attempts to regulate the reception of 
boarders . . -^qo 

The nuns and pohtical movements ... . 419 



Robbery and violence 

Border raids in Durham and Yorkshire .... 
The strange tale of Sir John Arundel's outrage on a nunnery 
The sack of Origny in Raoul de Cambrai .... 


Nuns and the celibate ideal 

Sources of evidence for the moral state of the English nunneries 

Apostate nuns 

Nuns' lovers 

Nuns' children 

Disorder in two small houses, Cannington (1351) and Ease- 
^bourne (1478) 

Disorder in the great abbeys of Amesbury and Godstow 

Moral state of the nunneries in the diocese of Lincoln at two 
periods .1 

Attempted statistical estimate of cases of immorality in 
Lincoln (1430-50), Norwich {1514) and Chichester (1478, 
1524) dioceses 

Punishment of offenders 

General conclusions ... ... 


The chapter meeting ... 

Reform by external authorities : 

(i) a parent house . . 

(2) the chapter general of the order 

(3) the bishop of the diocese ... 

The episcopal visitation and injunctions 

How far was this control adequate ? 

(i) concealment of faults 

(2) visitation too infrequent 

(3) difficulty of enforcing injunctions . . . . 
Value of visitation documents to the historian .... 


Value of literary evidence 
Autobiographies and biographies of nuns 
Popular poetry (chansons de nonnes) 
Popular stories {fabliaux, exetnpla) 
Didactic works addressed to nuns 
Satires and moral treatises . 
Secular literature in general . 














Page 13, lines 13-14. The statement 'all these houses were in the 
diocese of London' is incorrect. Sopwell was in the diocese of 
Lincoln, Mailing in that of Rochester and Sheppey in that of 
Page 28, line 30. For 'Lifege' read 'Liege'. 
Page 53, line 16. For 'rage' read 'age'. 

Page 83, note i, line 4 from end. For 'mulieres' read 'mulierum'. 
Page io8, note 2, last line. For 'paid' read 'pain'. 
Page III, line 11 (and index, p. 718). For 'Pergolotti' read 'Pegolotti'. 
Page 215, line 14. For 'meo' read 'moe'. 

Page 218, line 20. Liveing's translation is here incorrect. For 'signed 
as it is read' read 'signed and read over again' {consignata ut 
prius legatur). 
Page 223, note 3 of previous page. At the end of the Ankerwyke 
inventory the following words should be added : ' Inde in libero 
redditu annuatim a dicto domino exeunti v li. xj s. ix d.' 
Page 241, lines 19-21. The printed Legenda Atirea in the Kilbum 
library at the Dissolution was not necessarily Caxton's. The book 
was also printed by Wynkyn de Worde (1498), by Julian Notary 
(1504) and by Richard Pynson (1507). See Gordon Duff, West- 
minster and London Printers (1906), pp. 31, 141, 162. 
Page 247, last line. For 'missed' read 'mixed'. 
Page 257, line 16. For 'Panham lod' read 'Easter los,' and omit the 

comment 'which small sum. . .m.aterials.' 
Page 259, note 2, line 3. For ' occassionally ' read 'occasionally'. 
Page 306, line 4, page 413, line 4, Note E passim, and Index, p. 723. 

For 'Vert- Vert' read ' Ver-Vert'. 
Page 308, note 2, line 3. For 'Baretius' read ' Boretius'. 
Page 405, note 11. For ' St Helens' read ' St Helen's'. 
Page 473, line 16. For 'sixteenth' read 'fifteenth'. 
Page 510, note 3. The verse here quoted comes from The Kingis 

Quair and belongs to note 2. 
Page 511, note i, line 3 from bottom. For 'vaz' read 'van'. 
Page 571, under Barking. For ' 1433' read ' 1440' and for 'Henry V 

read 'Henry VI'. 
Page 60s, note 2. The original of this poem, which I could not trace, 
is printed in F. K. von Erlach, Die Volkslieder der Deutschen 
(Mannheim, 1834), I, p. 159. 
Page 624, note i, line 3. Omit the words ' For other versions see'. 
Page 709, col. I. For 'Dartford Abbey' read 'Dartford Priory'. 
Page 709, col. 2. For ' Diolog' read ' Dialog'. 

For some of these corrections I am indebted to Dr Caroline Skeel, 
Miss Milner Barry, Dr A. G. Litde, Mr J. D. Hobson and Mr S. 
Bateman. Dr Skeel also points out to me that the two Cistercian 
nunneries in Wales, Llanllugan and Llanllyr, should be included in 
Appendix IV, since Usk is included, and that the map gives a wrong 
impression as to Wales ; for the period covered by the book all the 
Welsh dioceses, not simply Llandaff, formed part of the province of 




Then, fair virgin, hear my spell. 

For I must your duty teU. 

First a-mornings take your book. 

The glass wherein yourself must look; 

Your young thoughts so proud and joUy 

Must be turn'd to motions holy; 

For your busk, attires and toys. 

Have your thoughts on heavenly joys: 

And for all your folUes past. 

You must do penance, pray and fast. 

You shall ring your sacring beU, 

Keep your hours and tell your knell. 

Rise at raidnight to your matins. 

Read your psalter, sing your Latins; 

And when your blood shall kindle pleasure. 

Scourge yourself in plenteous measure. 

You must read the morning mass, 

You must creep unto the cross. 

Put cold ashes on your head. 

Have a hair cloth for your bed. 

Bind your beads, and tell your needs. 

Your holy Aves and your Creeds; 

Holy maid, this must be done. 

If you mean to hve a nun. 

The Merry Devil of Edmonton. 

There were in England during the later middle ages (c. 1270- 
1536) some 138 nunneries, excluding double houses of the Gil- 
bertine order, which contained brothers as well as nuns. Of these 
over one half belonged to the Benedictine order and about a 
quarter (locahsed almost entirely in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire) 
to the Cistercian order. The rest were distributed as follows : 17 to 
the order of St Augustine and one (Minchin Buckland), which 
belonged to the order of St John of Jerusalem and followed the 
Austin rule, four to the Franciscan order, two to the Cluniac order, 
two to the Premonstratensian order and one to the Dominican 


order. There was also founded in the fifteenth century a very 
famous double house of the Brigittine order, Syon Abbey. Twenty- 
one of these houses had the status of abbeys; the rest were 
priories. They were distributed all over the country, Surrey, 
Lancashire, Westmorland and Cornwall being the only counties 
without one, but they were more thickly spread over the eastern 
than over the western half of the island. They were most numerous 
in the North, East and East Midlands, to wit, in the dioceses 
of York, Lincoln (which was then very large and included Lin- 
colnshire, Northamptonshire, Rutland, Bedfordshire, Hunting- 
donshire, Leicestershire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and part 
of Hertfordshire) and Norwich; there were 27 houses in the 
diocese of York, 31 in the diocese of Lincoln, ten in the 
diocese of Norwich and in London and its suburbs there were 
seven. On the other hand if nunneries were most plentiful in 
the North and East Midlands it was there that they were smallest 
and poorest. The wealthiest and most famous nunneries in England 
were all south of the Thames. Apart from the new foundation 
at Syon, which very soon became the largest and richest of all, 
the greatest houses were the old established abbeys of Wessex, 
Shaftesbury, Wilton, St Mary's Winchester, Romsey and Wher- 
weU, which, together with Barking in Essex were all of Anglo- 
Saxon foundation ; and Dartford in Kent, founded by Edward IIL 
The only houses north of the Thames which approached these 
in importance were Godstow and Elstow Abbeys, in Oxfordshire 
and Bedfordshire respectively; the majority were small priories 
with small incomes. 

An analysis of the incomes and numerical size of English 
nunneries at the dissolution gives interesting and somewhat 
starthng results. Out of 106 houses for which information is 
available only seven had in 1535 a gross annual income of over 
£450 a year. The richest were Syon and Shaftesbury with £1943 
and £1324 respectively; then came Barking with £S,62, Wilton 
with £674, Amesbury with £595, Romsey with £^^2^ and Dartford 
with ;f488. Five others (St Helen's Bishopsgate, Hahwell and 
the Minories all in London, Elstow and Godstow) had from £300 
to £400; nine others (Nuneaton, Clerkenwell, Malhng, St Mary's 
Winchester, Tarrant Keynes, Canonsleigh,Campsey, Minchin Buck- 
land and Lacock) had from £200 to ;(3oo. Twelve had between 


£ioo and £200 and no less than 73 houses had under £100, of 
which 39 actually had under £50; and it must be remembered 
that the net annual income, after the deduction of certain annual 
charges, was less stilP. An analysis of the numerical size of 
nunneries presents more difficulties, for the number of nuns given 
sometimes differs in the reports referring to the same house and 
it is doubtful whether commissioners or receivers always set 
down the total number of nuns present at the visitation or dis- 
solution of a house ; while lists of pensions paid by the crown to 
ex-inmates after dissolution are stiU more incomplete as evidence. 
A rough analysis, however, leaves very much the same impres- 
sion as an analysis of incomes^. Out of in houses, for which 
some sort of numerical estimate is possible, only four have over 
thirty inmates, viz. Syon (51), Amesbury (33), Wilton (32) and 
Barking (30). Eight (Elstow, the Minories, Nuneaton, Denny, 
Romsey,WherweU,Dartfordand St Mary's Winchester) have from 
20 to 30; thirty-six have from 10 to 20 and sixty-three have under 
10. These statistics permit of certain large generalisations. First, 
that the majority of English nunneries were small and poor. 
Secondly, that, as has already been pointed out, the largest and 
richest houses were all inLondon and south of theThames; only four 
houses north of that river had gross incomes of over £200 and only 
three could boast of more than 20 inmates. Thirdly, the nunneries 
during this period owned land and rents to the annual value of 
over £15,500 and contained perhaps between 1500 and 2000 nuns. 
To understand the history of the English nunneries during 
the later middle ages it is necessary not only to understand the 
smallness and poverty of many of the houses and the high repute 
of others; it is necessary also to understand what manner of 
women took the veil in them. From what social classes were the 
nuns drawn, and for what reason did they enter religion? What 

' Based on Professor Savine's analysis of the returns in the Valoi' Ec- 
cUsiasticus (Oxford Studies in Social and Legal History), I, 269-288. 

2 I have based this estimate partly on a list compiled by M. E. C. Wal- 
cott, English Minsters, vol. 11 ("The English Student's Monasticon"), partly 
on one compiled by Miss H. T. Jacka in an unpublished thesis on The 
Dissolution of the English Nunneries; the figures, if not always exactly 
correct, are approximately correct as far as the classification into groups, 
according to size, is concerned. It must be remembered, however, that 
there were more nuns at the beginning than at the end of the period 1270- 
1536; the convents tended to diminish in size, especially those which were 
poor and small to begin with. 


function did monasticism, so far as it concerned women, fulfil 
in the life of medieval society? 

It has been shown that the proportion of women who became 
nuns was very small in comparison with the total female popula- 
tion. It has indeed been insufficiently recognised that the medi- 
eval nunneries were recruited almost entirely from among the 
upper classes. They were essentially aristocratic institutions, the 
refuge of the gently born. At Romsey Abbey a hst of 91 sisters 
at the election of an abbess in 1333 is full of well-known county 
namesi- The names of Bassett, Sackville, Covert, Hussey, Tawke 
and Farnfold occur at Easebourne-; Lewknor, St John, Okehurst, 
Michelgrove and Sidney at Rusper^, the two small and poor 
nunneries in Sussex. The return of the subsidy in 1377 enumerates 
the sisters of Minchin Barrow and, as their historian points out, 
"among the family names of these ladies are some of the best 
that the western counties could produce"*. The other Somerset 
houses were equally aristocratic, and an examination of the roll 
of prioresses for almost any medieval convent in any part of 
England will give the same result, even in the smallest and 
poorest nunneries, the inmates of which were reduced to begging 
alms'. These ladies appear sometimes to have had the spirit of 
their race, as they often had its manners and its tastes. For 
21 years Isabel Stanley, Prioress of King's Mead, Derby, refused to 
pay a rent due from her house to the Abbot of Burton ; at last the 
Abbot sent his bailiff to distrain for it and she spoke her mind in 
good set terms. " Wenes these churles to overlede me," cried this 
worthy daughter of a knightly family, "or sue the lawe agayne 
me? They shall not be so hardy but they shall avye upon their 
bodies and be nailed with arrows; for I am a gentlewoman, 
comen of the greatest of Lancashire and Cheshire, and that they 
shall know right well"". A tacit recognition of the aristocratic 

' These are discussed in Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, pp. 112 sqq. 

2 V.C.H. Sussex, 11, p. 84. « 76. n, p. 63. 

' Hugo, Medieval Nunneries of the County of Somerset, Minchin Barrow, 
p. 108. 

' Well-known names occur, for instance, among the prioresses of the 
poor convents of Ivinghoe, Ankerwyke and Little Marlow in Bucks. V.C.H. 
Bucks, I, p. 355. 

« Lysons, Magna Britannia, V, p. 113. Compare the remark of a nun 
of Wenningsen, near Hanover, who considered herself insulted when the 
great reformer Busch addressed her not as " Klosterfrau" but as "Sister." 
"You are not my brother, wherefore then call me sister? My brother is 


character of the convents is to be found in the fact that bishops 
were often at pains to mention the good birth of the girls whom, 
in accordance with a general right, they nominated to certain 
houses on certain occasions. Thus Wykeham wrote to the Abbess 
of St Mary's Winchester, bidding her admit Joan Bleden, "quest 
de bone et honeste condition, come nous sumes enformes''^. More 
frequently still the candidates were described as "domicella" 
or "damoysele"2. At least one instance is extant of a bishop 
ordering that all the nuns of a house were to be of noble condition^. 
The fact that the greater portion of the female population 
was unaffected by the existence of the outlet provided by con- 
ventual life for women's energies is a significant one. The reason 
for it — paradoxical as this may sound — lies in the very narrowness 
of the sphere to which women of gentle birth were confined. The 
disadvantage of rank is that so many honest occupations are 
not, in its eyes, honourable occupations. In the lowest ranks 
of society the poor labourer upon the land had no need to get 
rid of his daughter, if he could not find her a husband, nor would 
it have been to his interest to do so; for, working in the fields 
among his sons, or spinning and brewing with his wife at home, 
she could earn a supplementary if not a living wage. The trades- 
man or artisan in the town was in a similar position. He recog- 
nised that the ideal course was to find a husband for his growing 
girl, but the alternative was in no sense that she should eat out 
her heart and his income during long years at home; and if he 
were too poor to provide her with a sufficient dower, he could and 
often did apprentice her to a trade. The number of industries 
which were carried on by women in the middle ages shows that 
for the burgess and lower classes there were other outlets besides 
marriage; and then, as now, domestic service provided for many. 
But the case of the well-born lady was different. The knight 
or the county gentleman could not apprentice his superfluous 

clad in steel and you in a linen frock" (1455). Quoted in Coulton, Medieval 
Garner, p. 653. 

1 Wykeham's Register (Hants. Rec. Soc), n, p. 462. Cf. ib. 11, p. 61. 

^ E.g. Reg. ...of Rigaud de Asserio (Hants. Rec. Soc), p. 394; Reg.... 
StephaniGravesend {Ca.nt.a.nd York. Soc), p. 200; IVykeham's Register, loc.cit. 

' Bishop Cobham of Worcester at Wroxall in 1323 [V.C.H. Warwick, 
II, p. 71). Cf. the case of Usk in Monmouthshire, "in quo monasterio solum 
virgines de nobili prosapia procreate recipi consueverunt et solent" {Chron. 
of Adam of Usk, ed. E. M. Thompson, p. 93). 


daughters to a pursemaker or a weaver in the town; not from 
them were drawn the regrateresses in the market place and the 
harvest gatherers in the field; nor was it theirs to make the 
parti-coloured bed and shake the coverlet, worked with grapes 
and unicorns, in some rich vintner's house. There remained for 
him, if he did not wish or could not afford to keep them at home 
and for them, if they desired some scope for their young energies, 
only marriage or else a convent, where they might go with a 
smaller dower than a husband of their own rank would demand. 
To say that the convents were the refuge of the gently born 
is not to say that there was no admixture of classes within them. 
The term gentleman was becoming more comprehensive in the 
later middle ages. It included the upper class proper, the families 
of noble birth ; and it included also the country gentry. The con- 
vents were probably at first recruited almost entirely from these 
two ranks of society, and a study of any collection of medieval 
wills shows how large a proportion of such families took advantage 
of this opening for women. A phrase will sometimes occur which 
shows that it was regarded as the natural and obvious alternative 
to marriage. Sir John Daubriggecourt in 1415 left his daughter 
Margery 40 marks, "if she be wedded to a worldly husband, and 
if she be caused to receive the sacred veil of the order of holy 
nuns" ten pounds and twenty shillings rent^, and Sir John le 
Blund in 1312 bequeathed an annuity to his daughter Ann, "till 
she marry or enter a religious house "^. The anxiety of the upper 
classes to secure a place for their children in nunneries sometimes 
even led to overcrowding. At Carrow the Prioress was forced 
to complain that " certain lords of England whom she was unable 
to resist because of their power" forced their daughters upon 
the priory as nuns, and in 1273 a papal bull forbade the reception 
of more inmates than the revenues would support'. Archbishop 
William Wickwane addressed a similar mandate to two York- 
shire houses, Wilberfoss and Nunkeehng, which public rumour 
had informed him to be overburdened with nuns and with secular 
boarders "at the instance of nobles"*; and in 1327 Bishop 

^ Gibbons, Early Lincoln Wills, p. 117. 

* Sharpe, Cal. of Wills enrolled in the Court of Husting, i, p. 236. Cf. ib. 
1. P- 35° ^nd Testamenta Eboracensia (Surtees Soc), i, pp. 170, 354. 

' Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 71. 

* Reg. of Archbishop William Wickwane (Surtees Soc), p. 113. 


Stratford wrote to Romsey Abbey that the house was notoriously 
burdened with ladies beyond the established number, and that 
he had heard that the nuns were being forced to receive more 
"damoyseles" as novices, which he forbade without special 
licence^. A very strong personal connection must in time have 
been established between a nunnery and certain families from 
which, in each generation, it received a daughter or a niece and 
her dower. Such was the connection between Shouldham and 
the Beauchamps^ and between Nunmonkton and the Fairfaxes^. 
A close hnk bound each nunnery to the family of its patron. 
Thus we find a Chnton at Wroxall and a Darcy at Heynings; 
nor is it unlikely that these noble ladies sometimes expected 
privileges and homage more than the strict equality of convent 
life would allow, if it be permissible to generalise from the be- 
haviour of Isabel Chnton* and from the fact that Margaret Darcy 
received a rather severe penance from Bishop Gynewell in 1351 
and a special warning against going beyond the claustral precincts 
or speaking to strangers', while in 1393 there occurs the signifi- 
cant injunction by Bishop Bokyngham that no sister was to 
have a room to herself except Dame Margaret Darcy (doubtless 
the same woman now grown elderly and ailing) "on account of 
the nobihty of her race"; an old lady of firm will and (despite 
his careful mention of extra pittances and of tolerating for a 
while) a somewhat sycophantic prelate*. 

' Liveing, Records of Romsey A bbey, p. 98. 

^ William de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, mentions two daughters, 
nuns at Shouldham, in his will (1296). Sir Guy de Beauchamp mentions 
his little daughter Katherine, a nun there (1359) and his father Thomas de 
Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, mentions the same Katherine and his own 
daughter Margaret, nuns there {1369). Katherine was still alive in 1400, 
when she is mentioned in the next Earl's will. Testamenta Vetusta, i, pp. 52, 
63. 79, 153- 

' See below, p. 15. 

* See below, pp. 39—40. 

^ "Et pur certayn cause nous auens enioynt a dame Margaret Darcy, 
vostre soer, qel ne passe les lieus de cloistre, cest assauoir de quoer, de cloistre, 
de ffraitour, dormitorie ou fermerie, tantque nous en aueroms autre ordeigne, 
et qele ne parle od nul estraunge gentz, et soit darreyn enstalle, et en chescun 
lieu qele ne porte anele, et qele die chescun iour un sautier et June la quarte 
et la sexte ferie a payn et eu. Ensement voilloms qe la dit dame Margaret 
se puisse confesser au confessour de vostre couent quant ele auera mester." 
Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Gynewell, f. ^^d. It looks like the penance for 

' "Item quod nulla moniahs ibidem cameram teneat priuatam, sed 
quod omnes moniales sane in dormitorio et infirme in infirmaria iaceant 


It is worthy of notice that Chaucer has drawn an unmistakable 
"lady" in his typical prioress. There is her deUcate behaviour 
at meals: 

At mete wel ytaught was she with-alle ; 

She leet no morsel from her hppes falle, 

Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe. 

Wel coude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe. 

That no drope ne fille upon hir brest. 

In curteisye was set ful muche hir lest. 

Hir over lippe wyped she so dene, 

That in hir coppe was no ferthing sene 

Of grace, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte. 

Ful semely after hir mete she raughte^. 

This was the ne plus ultra of feudal table manners; Chaucer 
might have been writing one of those books of deportment for 
the guidance of aristocratic young women, which were so numerous 
in France. So the Clef d' Amors counsels ladies who would win 
them lovers^, and even so Robert de Blois depicts the perfect 
diner. Robert de Blois' ideal, the chivalrous, frivolous, sensuous 
ideal of "courtesy," which underlay the whole aristocratic con- 
ception of life and the attainment of which was the criterion 
of polite society, is the ideal of the Prioress also : 

"Gardez vous, Dames, bien acertes," 
"Qu'au mengier soiez bien apertes; 
C'est une chose c'on moult prise 
Que 1^ soit dame bien aprise. 
Tel chose torne a vilonie 
Que toutes genz ne sevent mie; 
Se puet oil tost avoir mespris 
Qui n'est cortoisement apris^." 

Later he warns against the greedy selection of the finest and 
largest titbit for oneself, on the ground that " n'est pas corloisie." 

atque cubant, prater dominam Margaretam Darcy, monialem prioratus 
antedicti, cui ob nobilitatem sui generis de camera sua quam tenet in privata, 
absque tamen alia liberata panis et ceruisie, extra casum infirmitatis mani- 
feste, volumus ad tempus toUerare." Li^ic. Epis. Reg. Memo. Buckingham, 

1 Canterbury Tales (ed. Skeat), Prologue, 11, 127 ff. It is interesting to 
notice that the Roman de la Rose, of which Chaucer translated a fragment, 
contains some remarks upon this subject which are almost paraphrased in 
his description of Madame Eglentyne. 

2 La Clef d' Amors..., ed. Doutrepont (1890), v, 3227 fif. 

' Le Chastiement des Dames (Barbazon and Meon, Fabliaux et Contes, 
II, p. 200). 


The same consideration preoccupies Madame Eglentyne at her 
supper: "in curteisye was set ful muche hir lest." Good manners, 
elegant deportment, the polish of the court, all that we mean 
by nurture, these are her aim : 

And sikerly she was of greet disport, 
And ful plesaunt, and amiable of port, 
And peyned her to countrefete chare 
Of court, and been estatlich of manere. 
And to be holden digne of reverence. 

Her pets are the pets of ladies in metrical romances and in 
illuminated borders ; " smalehoundes," dehcately fed with " rosted 
flesh, or milk and wastel-bread." Her very beauty 

(Hir nose tretys ; hir eyen greye as glas, 
Hir mouth ful smal, and ther-to soft and reed ; 
But sikerly she hadde a fair f orheed ; 
It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe; 
For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe) 

conforms to the courtly standard. Only the mention of her 
chanting of divine service (through the tretys nose) differentiates 
her from any other well-born lady of the day; and if Chaucer 
had not told us whom he was describing, we might never have 
known that she was a nun. It was in these ideals and traditions 
that most of the inmates of English convents were born and 

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, an- 
other class rose into prominence and, perhaps because it was 
originally drawn to a great extent from the younger sons of 
the country gentry, found amalgamation with the gentry easy. 
The development of trade and the new openings for the employ- 
ment of capital had brought about the rise of the English mer- 
chant class. Hitherto foreigners had financed the English crown, 
but during the first four years of the Hundred Years' War it 
became clear that EngUsh merchants were now rich and powerful 
enough to take their place; and the triumph of the native was 
complete when, in 1345, Edward III repudiated his debts to the 
Itahan merchants and the Bardi and Peruzzi failed. Henceforth 
the Enghsh merchants were supreme; on the one hand their 
trading ventures enriched them; on the other they made vast 
sums out of farming the customs and the war subsidies in return 



for loans of ready money, and out of all sorts of government 
contracts. The successful campaigns of Crecy and Poitiers were 
entirely financed by these English capitaUsts. Not only trade 
but industry swelled the ranks of the nouveaux riches and the 
clothiers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries grew rich and 
prospered. Evidences of the wealth and importance of this 
middle class are to be found on all sides. The taxation of mov- 
ables, which from 1334 became an important and in time the 
main source of national revenue, indicates the discovery on the 
part of the government that the wealth of the nation no longer 
lay in land, but in trade. The frequent sumptuary acts, the 
luxury of daily hfe, bear witness to the wealth of the nouveaux 
riches; and so also do their philanthropic enterprises, the beauti- 
ful churches which they built, the bridges which they repaired, 
the gifts which they gave to reUgious and to ci\ac corporations. 
And it was in the fourteenth century that there began that 
steady fusion between the country gentry and the rich burgesses, 
which was accomphshed before the end of the middle ages and 
which resulted in the formation of a solid and powerful middle 
class. The political amalgamation of the two classes in the lower 
house of Parliament corresponded to a social amalgamation in 
the world outside. The country knights and squires saw in busi- 
ness a career for their younger sons ; they saw in marriage with 
the daughters of the mercantile class a way to mend their for- 
tunes; the city merchants, on the other hand, saw in such alliances 
a road to the attainment of that social prestige which went with 
land and blood, and were not loath to pay the price. " Merchants 
or new gentlemen I deem will proffer large," wrote Edmund 
Paston, concerning the marriage of one of his family. "Well I 
wot if ye depart to London ye shall have proffers large"'-. 

This social amalgamation between the country gentry and 
the "new gentlemen," who had made their money in trade, was 
naturally reflected in the nunneries. The \\'ills of London bur- 
gesses, which were enrolled in the Court of Husting, show that 
the daughters of these well-to-do citizens were in the habit of 
taking the veil. There is even more than one trace of the aristo- 
cratic view of religion as the sole alternative to marriage. Lang- 
land, enumerating the good deeds which will win pardon for 

' See Mrs Green, Town Life in the Fifteenth Century, 11, pp. 77-80. 


the merchant, bids him " marie maydens or maken hem nonnes " i. 
At Ludlow the gild of Palmers provided that : 

If any good girl of the gild of marriageable age, cannot have the means 
found by her father, either to go into a rehgious house or to marry, 
whichever she wishes to do, friendly and right help shall be given 
her out of our common chest, towards enabling her to do whichever 
of the two she wishes^. 

Similarly at Berwick-on-Tweed the gild "ordained by the pleasure 
of the burgesses" had a provision entitled, "Of the bringing up 
of daughters of the gild," which ran : " If any brother die leaving 
a daughter true and worthy and of good repute, but undowered, 
the gild shall find her a dower, either on marriage or on going 
into a religious house "^ So also John Syward, "stockfissh- 
mongere" of London, whose will was proved at the Court of 
Husting in 1349, 1^^^, "To Dionisia his daughter forty pounds 
for her advancement, so that she either marry therewith or 
become a religious at her election, within one year after his 
decease"*; and WiUiam Wyght, of the same trade, bequeathed 
"to each of his daughters Agnes, Margaret, Beatrix and AHce 
fifty pounds sterling for their marriage or for entering a religious 
house" (1393)^; while William Marowe in 1504 bequeathed to 
"Elizabeth and Katherine his daughters forty pounds each, to 
be paid at their marriage or profession"^- Sometimes, however, 
the sound burgess sense prevailed, as when Walter Constantyn 
endowed his wife with "the residue of his goods, so that she 
assist Amicia, his niece, . . . towards her marriage or to some trade 
befitting her position"'. 

The mixture of classes must have been more frequent in 
convents which were situate in or near a large town, while the 
country gentry had those lying in rural districts more or less 

1 Langland, Vision of Piers the Plowman, ed. Skeat, passus A, viii, i. 31. 

2 English Gilds, ed. L. T. Smith (E.E.T.S.), p. 194. 
^ Ibid. p. 340. 

* Sharpe, op. cit. i, p. 589. 

" Sharpe, op. cit. n, p. 299. The Fishmongers, who, up to 1536, were 
divided into the two companies of salt-iishmongers and stock-fishmongers, 
were a powerful and important body, as the annals of the City of London in 
the fourteenth century show, "these fishmongers" in the words of Stow 
"having been jolly citizens and six mayors of their company in the space 
of twenty-four years." Stow's Survey of London (ed. Kingsford), i, p. 214. 

• Sharpe, op. cit. n, p. 606. 
' Sharpe, op. cit. i, p. 594. 


to themselves. The nunnery of Carrow, for instance, was a 
favourite resort for girls of noble and of gentle birth, but it was 
also recruited from the daughters of prosperous Norwich citizens ; 
among nuns with well-known county names there were also 
ladies such as Isabel Barbour, daughter of Thomas Welan, barber, 
and Joan his wife, Margery Folcard, daughter of John Folcard, 
alderman of Norwich, and Catherine Segryme, daughter of Ralph 
Segryme, another alderman; the latter attained the position of 
prioress at the end of the fifteenth century^ These citizens, 
wealthy and powerful men in days when Norwich was one of 
the most important towns in England, probably met on equal 
terms with the country gentlemen of Norfolk, and both sent their 
daughters with handsome dowries to Carrow. The nunneries of 
London and of the surrounding district contained a similar mix- 
ture of classes, ranging from some of the noblest ladies in the land 
to the daughters of city magnates, men enriched by honourable 
trade or by the less honourable capitalistic ventures of the king's 
merchants. The famous house of Minoresses without Aldgate illus- 
trates the situation very clearly. It was always a special favourite 
of royalty; and the storm bird, Isabella, mother of Edward III, 
is by some supposed to have died in the order. She was certainly 
its constant benefactress^ as were Thomas of Woodstock, Duke 
of Gloucester and his wife, whose daughter Isabel was placed 
in the nunnery while only a child and eventually became its 
abbess^. Katherine, widow of John de Ingham, and Eleanor 
Lady Scrope were other aristocratic women who took the veil 
at the Minories * But this noble connection did not prevent the 
house from containing Alice, sister of Richard Hale, fishmonger^ 
Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Padyngton, fishmonger^, Marion, 
daughter of John Charteseye, baker', and Frideswida, daughter 
of John ReyneweU, alderman of the City of London^, girls drawn 
from the elite of the burgess class. An investigation of the wills 
enrolled in the Court of Husting shows the relative popularity 

^ Rye, Carrow Abbey, App. ix, pp. xvi, x™, xviii. 

2 See Archaeologia, xv (1806), pp. loo-ioi; ib. xx-xv (1853), p. 464. 

' V.C.H. London, i, p. 518. ' Ib. pp. 518-9. 

= Sharpe, op. cit. 11, p. 267. Two years previously (1396) John de Nevill 
had left legacies to his sister Eleanor and to his daughter Ehzabeth, minor- 
esses of St Clare; Durham Wills and Inventories (Surtees Soc), p. 39. 

* Sharpe, op. cit. 11, p. 589. 

' Ib. II, p. 331. s Ib. II, p. 577. 


of different convents among the citizens of London. Between 
the years 1258 and the Dissolution, 52 wills contain references 
to one or more nuns related to the testators^. From these it 
appears that the most popular house was Clerkenwell in 
Middlesex, which is mentioned in nine wills^. Barking in 
Essex comes next with eight references^, and St Helen's Bishops- 
gate with seven*; the house of Minoresses without Aldgate is five 
times mentioned^ Hahwell ^ in London and Stratford-atte- 
Bowe ' outside, having five and four references respectively, Kil- 
burn in Middlesex three^, Sopwell in Hertfordshire two". Mailing^" 
and Sheppeyii in Kent two each. Other convents are mentioned 
once only and in some cases a testator leaves legacies to nuns 
by name, without mentioning where they are professed. All 
these houses were in the diocese of London and either in or near 
the capital itself; they lay in the counties of Middlesex, Kent, 
Essex, Hertford and Bedford^^ It was but rarely that city girls 
went as far afield as Denny in Cambridgeshire, where the famous 
fishmonger and mayor of London, John Philpott, had a daughter 

Thus the nobles, the gentry and the superior rank of burgess 
— the upper and the upper-middle classes — sent their daughters 
to nunneries. But nuns were drawn from no lower class; poor 
girls of the lowest rank — whether the daughters of artisans or 
of country labourers — seem never to have taken the veil. A certain j^'' 
degree of education was demanded in a nun before her admission 
and the poor man's daughter would have neither the money, the 

1 Not counting legacies left to various nunneries, without specific 
reference to a relative professed there. 

' Sharpe, op. cit. i, pp. 107, 300, 313, 324, 408, 501, 585, 701. Phihp 
le Taillour had three daughters here in 1292 (i, p. 107), and William de Leyre 
had three daughters here in 1322 (i, p. 300). 

' lb. I, pp. 222, 303, 569, 638, 688; II, pp. 20, 76, 115. 

* lb. I, pp. 229, 303, 342, 400, 435; II, pp. 47, 170. Ten nuns in all. 

= lb. II, pp. 119, 267, 331, 577, 589. 

" lb. I, pp. 26, 126, 238, 349, 628. Ralph le Blund's three daughters and 
his sister-in-law were all nuns here in 1295 (i, p. 126) and Thomas Romayn, 
alderman and pepperer, left bequests to two daughters and to their aunt 
in 1313 (ib. I, p. 288). 

' Ib. I, pp. 34, III, 611; II, p. 119. 

» Ib. 11, pp. 167, 271, 274. ' lb. II, pp. 474, 564. 

^^ Ib. I, pp. 510, 638. " lb. I, p. 119; II, p. 306. 

'* There are two exceptions, Greenfield (Lines.) {ib. 11, p. 327), and 
Amesbury (Wilts.) {ib. 11, p. 326), but the testators in these cases are not 
burgesses, but a knight and a clerk. 


opportunity, nor the leisure to acquire it. The manorial fine paid 
by a villein when he wished to put his son to school and make 
a religious of him, had no counterpart in the case of girls^; the 
taking of the veil by a villein's daughter was apparently not 
contemplated. The chief barrier which shut out the poor from 
the nunneries was doubtless the dower which, in spite of the 
strict prohibition of the rule, was certainly required from a 
novice in almost every convent. The lay sisters of those nunneries 
which had lay sisters attached were probably drawn mainly 
from the lower class ^, but it must have been in the highest 
degree exceptional for a poor or low-born girl to become 
a nun. 

Medieval wUls (our most trusty source of information for the 
personnel of the nunneries) make it possible to gauge the extent 
to which the upper and middle classes used the nunneries as 
receptacles for superfluous daughters. In these wills, in which 
the medieval paterfamilias laboriously catalogues his offspring 
and divides his wealth between them, it is easy to guess at the 
embarrassments of a father too well-blessed with female progeny. 
What was poor Simon the Chamberlain of the diocese of Wor- 
cester to do, with six strapping girls upon his hands and sons 
Robert and Henry to provide for too? Fortunately he had a 
generous patron in Sir Nicholas de Mitton and it was perhaps 
Sir Nicholas who provided the dowers, when two of them were 
packed off to Nuneaton; let us hope that Christiana, Cecilia, 
Matilda and Joan married themselves out of the legacies which 
he left them in his will, when he died in 1290^. William de 
Percehay, lord of Ryton, who made his wiU in 1344, had to 
provide for five sons and one is therefore not surprised to find 
that two of his three daughters were nuns*. It is the same with 

1 The corresponding fines for girls were merchet if they married oflE the 
manor and leyrwite if they dispensed with that ceremony. The medieval lord 
concerned above all with keeping up the supply of labour upon his manor, 
naturally held the narrow view of the functions of women, which has been 
expressed in our day by Kipling: "Now the reserve of a boy is tenfold 
deeper than the reserve of a maid, she having been made for one end only 
by bUnd Nature, but man for several" {Stalky and Co. p. 212). 

2 Henry de Causton, mercator of London, left a bequest to Johanna, a 
'sister" at Ankerwyke, formerly servant to his father (1350) Sharpe ob 

cit. I, p. 638. ' ^ • f- 

' Register of Bishop Godfrey Giffard (Wore. Hist. Soc), ti, pp. 288-9. 
* Testamenta Eboracensia (Surtees Soc), i, p. 6. 


the rich citizens of London and elsewhere; Sir Richard de la 
Pole, of a great Hull merchant house (soon to be ennobled), 
mentions in his will two sons and two daughters, one of whom 
was a nun at Barking while the other received a legacy towards 
her marriage!; Hugh de Waltham, town clerk, mentions three 
daughters, one at St Helen's^; John de Croydon, fishmonger, 
leaves bequests to one son and four daughters, one at Clerken- 
welP; William de Chayham kept Lucy, Agnes and Johanna with 
him, but made Juliana a nun*. The will of Joan Lady Chnton 
illustrates the proportion in which a large family of girls might 
be divided between the convent and the world ; in 1457 she left 
certain sums of money to Margaret, Isabel and Cecily Francyes, 
on condition that they should pay four pounds annually to their 
sisters Joan and Elizabeth, nuns^. It was not infrequent for 
several members of a family to enter the same convent, as the 
lists of inmates given in visitation records, or in the reports of 
Henry VIII's commissioners, as weU as the evidence of the wills, 
bear witness*. The case of Shouldham, already quoted, shows 
that different generations of a family might be represented at 
the same time in a convent', but it was perhaps not usual for 
so many sisters to become nuns as in the Fairfax family; in 
I3g3 their brother's will introduces us to Mary and Ahce, nuns 
of Sempringham, and Margaret and Eleanor, respectively prioress 
and nun of Nunmonkton^. Margaret (of whom more anon) took 
convent hfe easily; it is to be feared that she had aU too little 
vocation for it. Sometimes these family parties in a nunnery 
led to quarrels; the sisters foregathered in chques, or else they 
continued in the cloister the domestic arguments of the hearth ; 
there was an amusing case of the kmd at Swine in 1268*, and 
some years later (in 1318) an Archbishop of York had to forbid 

1 Test. Ebor. i, p. 9, dated 1345- C£. will of Roger de Moreton "civis et 
mercerus Ebor." 1390 ; two of four daughters nuns at St Clement's, York 
(ib. I, p. 133). 

2 Sharpe, op. cit. i, p. 400, dated 1335. ^ Ib. i, p. 501, dated 1349. 

* Ib. I, p. 503, dated 1348. ' Testamenta Vetusta, i, p. 286. 

* See above, p. 7. There were two Welbys, two Lekes and two Pay- 
nelles at Stixwould; Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 76. Other references might be 

' Cf. also Sharpe, op. cit. 1, p. 238; and Reg. of Bishop Ginsborough 
(Wore. Hist. Soc), p. 51. 

' Testamenta Eboracensia (Surtees Soc.) i, pp. 187 ff. (will of Sir John 
Fayrfax, rector of Prescot, 1393)- ' See below, p. 302. 


the admission of more than two or three nuns of one family 
to Nunappleton, without special hcence, for fear of discord i. 

Probably the real factor in determining the social class from 
which the convents were recruited, was not one of rank, but one 
of money. The practice of demanding dowries from those who 
wished to become nuns was strictly forbidden by the monastic 
rule and by canon law 2- To spiritual minds any taint of com- 
merce was repugnant; Christ asked no dowry with his bride. 
The didactic and mystical writers of the period often draw a 
contrast between the earthly and the heavenly groom in this 
matter. The author of Hali Meidenhad in the thirteenth century, 
urging the convent Ufe upon his spiritual daughter, sets against 
his picture of Christ's virgin-brides that of the weU-born girl, 
married with disparagement through lack of dower: 

What thinkest thou of the poor, that are indifferently dowered and 
ill-provided for, as almost all gentlewomen now are in the world, that 
have not wherewith to buy themselves a bridegroom of their own 
rank and give themselves into servitude to a man of low esteem, with 
all that they have? Wellaway ! Jesu ! what unworthy chaffer^. 

Thomas of Hales' mystical poem A Luue Ron, in the same 
century, also lays stress upon this point, half in ecstatic praise 
of the celibate ideal, half as a material inducement*, and the 
same idea is repeated at the end of the next century in Clene 
Maydenhod : 

He asketh with the nouther lond ne leode. 
Gold ne selver ne precious stone. 
To such thinges hath he no neode, 
Al that is good is with hym one, 
Gif thou with him thi lyf wolt lede 
And graunte to ben his owne lemman^. 

In ecclesiastical language the same sentiment is expressed by 
the injunction of Archbishop Greenfield of York, who forbade 
the nuns of Arden to receive any one as a nun by compact, 
since that involved guilt of simony, but only to receive her "from 
promptings of love"*. 

> V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 172. ' On this subject see Coulton, Monastic 
Schools in the Middle Ages (Medieval Studies), pp. 34-5. 
2 Hali Meidenhad, ed. Cockayne (E.E.T.S.), p. 8. 

* Old English Miscellany, ed. Morris {E.E.T.S., 1872), p. 96. 
' Clene Maydenhod, ed. Furnivall (E.E.T.S.), pp. 5-6. 

• V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 113. 


This sentiment was, however, set aside in practice from early 
times; and a glance at any conventual register, such as the 
famous Register of Godstow Abbey, shows something like a 
regular system of dowries, dating certainly from the twelfth 
century. The Godstow Register contains ig deeds, ranging be- 
tween 1 139 and 1278, by which grants are made to the nunnery 
on the entrance of a relative of the grantor, the usual phrase 
being that such and such a man gave such and such rent- 
charges, pasture-rights, lands or messuages, "with" his mother 
or sister or daughter " to be anun"i. One very curious deed dated 
1259, shows that the reception of a girl at Godstow was definitely 
a pecuniary matter. Ralph and Agnes Chondut sold to the 
nunnery a piece of land called Anfric, 

for thys quite claime and rales, the seyd abbas and holy mynchons 
of Godstowe gafe to the seyde raph and Agnes hys wyfe liii° marke, 
and made Katherine the sustur of the seyd Agnes (wyfe of the seyd 
raph) Mynchon in the monasteri of Godstowe, with the costys of the 
hows,... and the seyd holy mynchons of Godstowe shold pay to the 
seyd raph and Agnes hys wyfe xxv marke of the forseyd liii marke 
in that day in whyche the foreseyd Katerine should be delyuerd to 
hem to be norysshed and to be naad mynchon in the same place and 
in the whyche the seyd penyes shold be payd, 

and a second instalment at a place to be agreed upon when 
confirmation of the grant is obtained^ That is to say the price 
of the land was £35. 6s. 8d. together with the cost of receiving 

1 The English Register of Godstow Nunnery (E.E.T.S.), introduction, 
pp. xxv-xxvi. Cf. Cartulary of Buckland Priory (Somerset Rec. Soc), 
introd. pp. xxii-xxiii. 

^ Reg. of Godstow, U.S. no. 76, pp. 78-9. See also an exceedingly interesting 
action of quare impedit brought by John Stonor (probably the Lord Chief 
Justice) against the Prioress of Marlow in 1339, probably merely to secure a 
record. He had bought the advowsons of the two moieties of the church of 
Little Marlow and an acre of land with each and conveyed the whole to the 
Prioress, subject to the provision "that out of it the said Prioress and nuns 
shall find Joan and Cecily, sisters of the aforesaid John, and Katherine, 
daughter of the aforesaid John, nuns of the aforesaid place, 40s. a year each 
during their Uves, and also for the sustenance of all the nuns towards their 
kitchen half a mark of silver each year and for the vesture of the twenty 
nuns serving God there each year los. of silver, to be divided equally between 
them." After the deaths of the Stonor ladies all the money is to go to the 
common funds of the house, with certain provisions. Year Books of Ed- 
ward III, years xii and xiii, ed. L. O. Pike (Rolls Series, 1885), pp. cxi- 
cxvii, 260-2. For the appropriation of these money dowries to the use of 
the individual nuns, see below, Ch. Vlfl, passim. 


Katherine, which was equivalent to a further sum of money, 
unfortunately not specified. 

Any collection of wills provides ample evidence of this dowry 
system. Not only do they frequently contain legacies for the 
support of some particular nun during the term of her life, but 
bequests also occur for the specific purpose of paying for the 
admission of a girl to a nunnery, in exactly the same way as 
other girls are provided with dowries for their marriage. The 
Countess of Warwick, in 1439, left a will directing "that lane 
Newmarch have cc mark in gold. And I to here all Costes as for 
her bryngynge yn-to seynt Katrens, or where-ever she woll be 
elles"!. Even the clergy, who should have been the last to 
recognise a system so flagrantly contrary to canon law, followed 
the general custom; Wilham Peke, rector of Scrivelsby, left one 
Isabella ten marks to make her a nun in the GUbertine house 
of Catley^ and Robert de Playce, rector of the church of Bromp- 
ton, made the following bequest: 

Item I bequeath to the daughter of John de Playce my brother loos. 
in silver, for an aid towards making her a nun in one of the houses of 
Wickham, Yedingham or Muncton, if her friends are willing to give 
her sufficient aid to accomphsh this, but if, through lack of assistance 
from friends, she be not made a nun, 

she was to have none of this bequest (1345)^. Sometimes, as has 
already been noted, the money is left alternatively to marry the 
girl or to make her a nun, which brings out very clearly the 
dower-like nature of such bequests *. The accounts of great folk 

1 Nicolas, Testamenta Vetusta, i, p. 118. 

^ Gibbons, Early Lincoln Wills, p. 113. 

' Testamenta Eboracensia, i, p. 11. 

* See above, p. 6. See also the interesting deed (1429—30) in which 
Richard Fairfax "scwyer," made arrangements for the entrance of his 
daughter "Elan," to Nunmonkton, always patronised by the Fairfaxes. 
He left an annual rent of five marks in trust for her "yat my doghtir Elan 
be made nun in ye house of Nun Monkton, and yat my saydes feffis graunt 
a nanuel rent of fourty schilyngs...terme of ye lyfie of ye sayd Elan to ye 
tym be at sche be a nun." His feoffees were to pay nineteen marks "for 
ye makyng ye sayd Elan nun." And "if sche will be no nun" his wife and 
feoffees were to marry her at their discretion. V.C.H. Yorlis. in, p. 123. Cf. 
an interesting case in which Matilda Toky, the orphan of a citizen of London, 
is allowed by the mayor and aldermen to become a nun of Kilburn in 1393, 
taking with her her share {£18. 5s. 4jd.) of her father's estate, after which 
the prioress of the house comes in person to receive the money from the 
chamberlain of the city. Riley. Memorials of London, p. 535. The father's 
will is in Sharpe, op. cit. n, pp. 288-9; he had three sons and a daughter 
besides Matilda. 


often tell the same tale. When Elizabeth Chancy — probably a 
relative of the poet Chaucer — became a nun at Barking Abbey 
in 1381, John of Gaunt paid £51. 8s. 2d. in expenses and gifts 
on the occasion of her admission'^, and the privy purse expenses 
of Elizabeth of York contain the item, "Dehvered to thabbesse 
of Elnestowe by thands of John Duffyn for the costes and 
charges of litle Anne Loveday at the making of her nonne 
there £6. 13s. 4^."^. 

It is possible to determine the exact nature of these costs 
and charges from an account of the expenses of the executors 
of Elizabeth Sewardby, who died in 1468. This lady, the widow 
of William Sewardby of Sewardby, had left a legacy of £6. 13s. 4^. 
to her namesake, little Elizabeth Sewardby, to be given her if 
she should become a nun. The executors record certain payments 
made to the Prioress of Nunmonkton during the period when 
Elizabeth was a boarder there, before taking the vows, and then 
follows a list of "expenses made for and concerning Ehzabeth 
Sewardby when she was made a nun at Monkton " : 

They say that they paid and gave to the Prioress and Convent of 
Monkton, for a certain fee which the said Prioress and Convent 
claim by custom, to have and are wont to have from each nun at her 
entrance £^. And in money paid for the habit of the said Ehzabeth 
Sewardby and for other attire of her body and for a fitting bed, 
£3. 13s. 6^d. And in expenditure made in connection with the afore- 
said Prioress and Convent and with the friends of the aforesaid 
Elizabeth coming together on the Sunday next after the feast of the 
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary a.d. 1460, ^3. iis. /[d. In a 
gratuity given to brother John Hamilton, preaching a sermon at the 
aforesaid Monkton on the aforesaid Sunday, 2s. And in a certain 
remuneration given to Thomas Clerk of York for his wise counsel 
concerning the recovery of the debts due to the said dame Elizabeth 
Sewardby, deceased, i2d. Total ;^io. ys. lo^d.^ 

^ V.C.H. Essex, u, p. 117. 

» Quoted in V.C.H. Beds. 1, p. 254. 

' Testamenta Eboracensia, ni, p. 168. The sum left for entrance of Ellen 
Fairfax to Nunmonkton was about the same, £10. 13s. ^d. {16 marks). 
Above, p. 18, note 4. There is an interesting note of the outfit provided for 
an Austin nun of Lacock on her profession m 1395, attached to a page of 
the cartulary of that house. "Memorandum concerning the expenses of the 
veiling of Joan, daughter of Nicholas Sambome, at Lacock, viz. in the 19th 
year of the reign of King Richard the second after the conquest. First paid 
to the abbess for her fee 20s. then to the convent 40s., to each nun 2s. 
Item paid to John Bartelot for veils and linen cloth 1025." (this large sum 
may include a supply for the whole house). "Item to a certain woman for 
one veil 40(i. Item for one mantle los. Item for one fur of shankes (a cheap 


It will be noticed that Elizabeth took with her not only a lump 
sum of money, but also clothes and a bed, the cost of which 
more than doubled the dowry. Canon law specifically allowed 
the provision of a habit by friends, when the poverty of a house 
rendered this necessary; and it is clear from other sources that 
it was not unusual for a novice to be provided also with furniture. 
The inventory of the goods belonging to the priory of Minster 
in Sheppey, at the Dissolution, contains, under the heading of 
"the greate Chamber in the Dorter," a note of 

stuff in the same chamber belonging to Dame Agnes Davye, which 
she browghte with her; a square sparver of payntyd clothe and iiij peces 
hang3mg of the same, iij pajrre of shets, a cownterpoynt of corse verder 
and i square cofer of ashe, a cabord of waynscott carved, ij awndyrons, 
a payxe of tonges and a fyer panne. 

And under "Dame Agnes Browne's Chamber" is the entry: 

Stuff given her by her frends : — A fetherbed, a bolster, ij pyllowys, a 
payre of blankatts, ij corse coverleds, iiij pare of shets good and badde, 
an olde tester and selar of paynted clothes and ij peces of hangyng 
to the same; a square cofer carvyd, with ij bad clothes upon the cofer, 
and in the wyndow a lytill cobard of waynscott carvyd and ij lytill 
chestes; a small goblet with a cover of sylver parcel gylt, a lytill 
maser with a bryme of sylver and gylt, a lytyll pece of sylver and a 
spone of sylver, ij lytyll latyn candellstyks, a iire panne and a pare 
of tonges, ij small aundyrons, iiij pewter dysshes, a porrenger, a 
pewter bason, ij skyllots, a lytill brasse pot, a cawdyron and a drynk- 
yng pot of pewter. 

She had apparently been sent into the house with a complete 
equipment in furniture and implements^. 

fur made from the underpart of rabbit skin) for another mantle, i6s. Item 
for white cloth to line the first mantle, i6s. Item for white cloth for a tunic 
los. Item one fur for the aforesaid pilch 20s. Item for a maser (cup) 105. 
Item for a silver spoon 2s. bd. Item for blankets 6s. 8rf. Item in canvas for 
a bed 2s. Item for the purchase of another mantle of worsted 20s. Item 
paid at the time of profession at one time 20s. Item for a new bed 205. Item 
for other necessaries 20s,... Item paid to the said Joan by the order of the 
abbess." The total (excluding the last item) is £17. bs. id. Archaeol. Journ. 
1912, Lxix, p. 117. 

1 Mackenzie E. C. Walcott, Inventories of... the Benedictine Priory of 
St Mary and Sexbiir gain the I stand of Shepey for Nuns (1869) (reprinted from 
Archaeologia Cantiana, vn, pp. 272-306). Compare the letter to Cromwell 
from Sir Thomas Willoughby, who asks that Ehzabeth Rede, his sister- 
in-law, who had resigned the office of Abbess of Mailing, may have suitable 
lodging within the monastery, "not only that but such plate as my father- 
in-law did dehver her to occupy in her chamber, that she may have it again." 
Wood, Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies, n, p. 153. 


Throughout the middle ages a struggle went on between the 
Church, which forbade the exaction of dowries, and the convents 
which persisted in demanding them, sometimes in so flagrant a 
manner as to incur the charge of simony. The earliest prohibition 
of dowries in English canon law occurred at the Council of 
Westminster in 1175^ and was repeated at the Council of London 
in 1200^ and at the Council of Oxford in 1222^; this last had 
been anticipated by a decree of the fourth Lateran Council. The 
history of the struggle to apply it is to be gathered from visita- 
tional records. Archbishop Walter Giffard, visiting Swine in 1268, 
finds that AHcia Brun and AHcia de Adeburn were simoniacally 
veiled*; Bishop Norbury has to rebuke the Prioress of Chester for 
the simoniacal receipt of bribes to admit nuns^; Bishop Ralph 
of Shrewsbury has heard that the Prioress of Cannington re- 
ceived four women as sisters of that house for £20 each, falling 
into the pravity of simony*; William of Wykeham writes to the 
nuns of Romsey in 1387 that 

in our said visitations it was discovered and declared that, on account 
of the reception of certain persons as nuns of your said monastery, 
several sums of money were received by the Abbess and Convent 
by way of covenant, reward and compact, not without stain of the 
pravity of simony and, if it were so, to the peril of your souls, 

and he proceeds to forbid the exaction of a dowry "on pretext 
of any custom {consuetudinis) whatsoever, which is rather to be 
esteemed a corruption (corruptela) ," a significant phrase, which 
shows that the practice was well estabHshed'. Bishop Bucking- 

■• "NuUus praelatus in recipiendo monacho, vel canonico, vel sancti- 
moniali pretium sumere vel e.xigere ab hiis, qui ad conversionem veniunt, 
aliqua pacti occasions praesumat. Si quis autem hoc fecerit anathema sit." 
Wilkins, Concilia, i, p. 477. 

2 "Monachi etiam sub pretio non recipiantur in monasterio....Si quis 
autem exactus pro sua receptione aliquid dederit, ad canonicos ordines non 
accedat." lb. p. 508. 

' "Praeterea statuimus, praesenti concilio approbante, ut nullus de 
cetero pro receptione alicujus in religionis domum pecuniam vel quicquam 
aliud extorquere praesumat; adeo ut si pro paupertate domus ingrediens 
debeat vestire seipsum praetextu vestimentorum ultra justum pretium 
eorum ab eo nihil penitus recipiatur." lb. p. 591. 

* Reg. of Walter Giffard (Surtees Soc), p. 147. 

^ Reg. of Roger de Norbury (Will. Salt Archaeol. Soc. Collections, i), 

P- 259. 

' Reg. of Ralph of Shrewsbury (Somerset Rec. Soc), p. 684. 
' MS. Register at New College, f. 87^. 


ham of Lincoln warns the nuns of Heynings against "the recep- 
tion or extortion of money or of anything else by compact for 
the reception of anyone into religion" (1392)1; and Bishop 
Flemyng enjoins at Elstow in 1422 

that hereafter fit persons be received as nuns; for whose reception or 
entrance let no money or aught else be demanded ; but without any 
simoniacal bargain and covenant of any sum of money or other thing 
whatsoever, which were accustomed to be made by the crime of 
simony, let them henceforth be admitted to your religion purely, 
simply and for nothing^. 

But the most detailed information as to the prevalence of the 
dowry-system is contained in the records of Bishop Alnwick's 
visitations of religious houses in the diocese of Lincoln in 1440^. 
When the Bishop came to Heynings (which had already been 
in trouble under Bokyngham) one of the nuns, Dame Agnes 
Sutton, gave evidence to the effect that 

her friends came to the Prioress and covenanted that she should be 
received as a nun for twelve marks and the said money was paid down 
before she was admitted, and she says that no one is admitted before 
the sum agreed upon for her reception is paid. 

She added that nothing was exacted save what was a free offering, 
but from her previous words it is obvious that no nuns were 
received at Heynings without a dowry. Similarly at Langley 
Dame Cecily Folgeham said that her friends gave ten marks to 
the house "when she was tonsured, but not by covenant." The 
most interesting case of all was that of Nuncoton. The Sub- 
prioress, Dame Ellen Frost, said "that it was the custom in 
time past to take twenty pounds or less for the admission of 
nuns, otherwise they would not be received." The Bishop pro- 
ceeded to examine other members of the house; Dame Maud 
Saltmershe confirmed what the Subprioress had said about the 
price for the reception of nuns; two other ladies, who had been 
in religion for fifteen and eight years respectively, deposed to 
having paid twenty pounds on their entrance and Dame Alice 
Skotte said that she did not know how much she had paid, but 
that she thought it was twenty pounds. Clearly there was a 
fixed entrance fee to this nunnery and it was impossible to become 

' Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, i. 397^. 

" Line. Visit. 1, p. 49. 

' See Line. Visit, u, and Alnwiek's Visit. MS., passim. 


a nun without it; all pretence of free-will offerings had been 
dropped. When it is considered that this entrance fee was twenty 
pounds (i.e. about £200 of modern money) it is easy to see why 
poor girls belonging to the lower orders never found their way 
into convents; such a luxury was far beyond their means. 

In each of these cases and at two other houses (St Michael's 
Stamford, and Legbourne) Alnwick entered a stern prohibition, 
on pain of excommunication, against the reception of anything 
except free gifts from the friends of a novice. His injunction 
to Heynings may be quoted as typical of those made by medieval 
bishops on such occasions: 

For as mykelle as we founde that many has been receyvede here afore 
into nunne and sustre in your sayde pryory by covenaunt and paccyons 
made be fore thair receyvyng of certeyn moneys to be payed to the 
howse, the whiche is dampnede by alle lawe, we charge yowe under 
the payn of the sentence of cursyng obove wrytene that fro hense 
forthe ye receyve none persons in to nunne ne sustre in your sayde 
pryore by no suche couenant, ne pactes or bargaines made before. 
Whan thai are receyvede and professede, if thaire frendes of thaire 
almesse wylle any gyfe to the place, we suffre wele, commende and 
conferme hit to be receyvede^. 

But the efforts at reform made by Alnwick and other visitors 
were never very successful; Nuncoton evidently continued to 
demand its entrance fee, for in 153 1 the practice was once more 
forbidden by Bishop Longland^. Moreover it is easy to see that 
the distinction between the reception of what was willingly 
offered by friends (which was specifically permitted by the rule 
of St Benedict and by synods and visitors throughout the middle 
ages), and what was given by agreement as payment for the 
entry of a novice (which was always forbidden) might become 
a distinction without a difference, as it clearly was in the case 
of Heynings quoted above. The Prioress of Gokewell, who de- 
clared to Alnwick that "they take nothing for the admission 
of nuns, save that which the friends of her who is to be created 
offer of their free-will and not by agreement "3, may have acted 
in reaUty not very differently from her erring sisters of Heynings, 
Nuncoton and Langley. The temptation was in fact too great. 

1 Line. Visit. 11, pp. 133, 134. See also the very sternly worded pro- 
hibition sent by Bishop Spofford of Hereford to Aconbury in 1438. Reg. 
Thome Spofford (Cantilupe Soc), pp. 223-4. 

2 Archaeologia, xlvii, p. 57. ' Line. Visit, n, p. 117. 

24 THE NOVICE [ch. 

The clause of the Oxford decree, which permitted poor houses 
if necessary to receive a sum sufficient for the vesture of a new 
member and no more, broadened the way already opened by 
the permission of free-will offerings. The concluding words of 
Bishop Flemyng's prohibition of dowries at Elstow in 1422 show 
that this permission had been abused; "if they must be clothed 
at their own or their friends' expense, let nothing at all be in 
any sort exacted or required, beyond their garments or the just 
price of their garments "i. Throughout the later middle ages an 
increase in the cost of hving went side by side with a decrease in 
the monastic ideal of poverty, showing itself on the one hand in 
the constant breach of the rule against private property, on the 
other in the exaction of money with novices, until the dowry 
system (although never during the middle ages recognised by 
law) became in practice a matter of course. 

Lest it should seem that everyone who had enough money 
could become a nun, it must, however, be added that the bishops 
took some pains that the persons who were received as novices 
should be suitable and pleasing to their sisters. They seldom 
exercised their right of nomination without some assurance that 
their nominee was of honest life and station, ' ' Mulierem honestam, 
ut credimus"^, "bonaeindolis, utcredimus, juvenculam"^, "jeo- 
vene damoisele et de bone condicion, come nous sumez en- 
formez"*, "competeter ad hujusmodi officii debitum litterate"^. 
They were always ready to hear complaints if unsuitable persons 
had been admitted by the prioress ; and they sometimes made 
special injunctions upon the matter. Bokyngham at Heynings 
in 1392 ordered "that they receive no one to the habit, 
nor even to profession, unless she be first found by dihgent 
inquisition and- approbation to be useful, teachable, capable, of 
legitimate age, discreet and honest"*. At Elstow Bishop Gray 
made a very comprehensive injunction: 

Furthermore we enjoin and charge you the Abbess... that hence- 
forward you admit no one to be a nun of the said monastery, unless 

^ Line. Visit. I, p. 49. 

^ Reg. Johannis Peckham (Rolls Series), i, p. 189. 

=> lb. I, pp. 40-1, 356. 

' Wykeham's Reg. 11, pp. 60-61. Cf. ib. p. 462. 

' Reg. Johannis de Pontissara, pp. 240, 252. 

^ Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, i. ^gjd. 


with the express consent of the greater and sounder part of the same 
convent; and no one in that case, unless she be taught in song and 
reading and the other things requisite herein, or probably may be 
easily instructed witliin short time, and be such that she shall be 
able to bear the burdens of the quire (with) the rest that pertain to 

Nevertheless, for all their precautions, some strange inmates 
found their way into the medieval nunneries. 

The novice who entered a nunnery, to live there as a nun 
for the rest of her natural life, might do so for very various 
reasons. For those who entered young and of their own will, 
religion was either a profession or a vocation. They might take 
the veil because it offered an honourable career for superfluous 
girls, who were unwilling or unable to marry ; or they might take 
it in a real spirit of devotion, with a real call to the religious 
life. For other girls the nunnery might be a prison, into which 
they were thrust, unwilling but often afraid to resist, by elders 
who wished to be rid of them; and many nunneries contained 
also another class of inmates, older women, often widows, who 
had retired thither to end their days in peace. A career, a voca- 
tion, a prison, a refuge; to its different inmates the medieval 
nunnery was all these things. 

The nunnery as a career and as a vocation does not need 
separate treatment. It has already been shown that in large 
families it was a very usual custom to make one or more of the 
daughters nuns. Indeed the youth of many of the girls who took 
the veil is in itself proof that anything hke a vocation, or even 
a free choice, was seldom possible and was hardly anticipated, 
even in theory. The age of profession was sixteen, but much 
younger children were received as novices and prepared for the 
veil; they could withdraw if they found the life distasteful, but 
as a rule, being brought up from early childhood for this career, 
they entered upon it as a matter of course ; moreover the Church 
was rather apt to regard the withdrawal of novices as apostasy. 
Sir Guy de Beauchamp in his will (dated 1359) describes his 
daughter Katherine as a nun of Shouldham and Dugdale notes 
that Katherine, aged seven years, and EKzabeth, aged about one 
year, were found to be daughters and heirs of the said Guy, who 

1 Line. Visit. I, p. 53. Cf. Flemyng's injunction in 1422, ib. 


died in the following year^. It might be supposed that this child 
of seven was being brought up as a lay boarder in the convent, 
but legacies left to Katherine "a nun at Shouldham" by her 
grandfather and by her uncle, in 1369 and in 1400 respectively, 
show that she had been thus vowed in infancy to a reUgious life^. 
One of the daughters of Thomas of Woodstock Duke of Gloucester, 
was "in infancy placed in the monastery (of the Minoresses 
without Aldgate) and clad in the monastic habit" and in 1401 
the Pope gave her permission to leave it if she wished, but she 
remained and became its abbess^ Bishops' registers constantly 
give evidence of the presence of mere children in nunneries. 
When Alnwick visited Ankerwyke in 1441, three of the younger 
nuns complained that they lacked a teacher (informatrix) to teach 
them "reading, song, or rehgious observance"; and at the end 
of the visitation the Bishop noted that he had examined all 
the nuns save three, whom he had omitted "on account of the 
heedlessness of their age and the simplicity of their discretion, 
since the eldest of them is not older than thirteen years"*. At 
Studley in 1445 he found a girl who had been in religion for 
two years and was then thirteen; she complained that one of 
the maid-servants had slapped a fellow nun (doubtless also a 
child) in church l^ At Littlemore there was a certain Agnes 
Marcham, who had entered at the age of thirteen, and had re- 
mained there unprofessed for thirteen years ; she now refused to 
take the full vows'. Some of the nuns at Romsey in 1534 were 
very young, two being fourteen and one fifteen^. Indeed the 
reception of girls at a tender age was rather encouraged than 
otherwise by the Church. Archbishop Greenfield gave a Hcence 
to the Prioress of Hampole to receive Elena, daughter of the 
late Reyner Sperri, citizen of York, who was eight years old, 
and (he added solemnly) "of good conversation and life "8, and 
Archbishop John le Romeyn described Margaret de la Batayle, 
whom he sent to Sinningthwaite, as " juvencula"^. The great 

' Teslamenta Vetusta, i, pp. 63-4. ' See above, p. 7, note 2. 

^ V.C.H. London, i, p. 518. * Line. Visit, n, p. 5. 

'' Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 26d. ' Line. Visit. 11, p. 217. 

' Liveing, Reeords of Romsey Abbey, p. 248. 

8 V.C.H. Yorks, III, p. 163. In 1312 the prioress of Hampole was re- 
buked for receiving a little girl {ptullulam), not on account of her youth, 
but because she had omitted to obtain the archbishop's licence. lb. 

' Reg. of Arehbishop John le Romeyn (Surtees Soc), :, p. 66. 


Peckham went out of his way to make a specific defence of the 
practice in 1282, when the Prioress and Convent of Stratford 
sought to excuse themselves from veiHng a httle girl called 
Isabel Bret, by reason of her youth, "since on account of this 
minority she is the more able and capable to learn and receive 
those things which concern the discipline of your order "i. 

It is impossible to make the generalisation that even children 
professed at such an early age could have had no consciousness 
of a vocation for the religious life; the history of some of the 
women saints of the middle ages would be enough to disprove 
this^- The German monk Caesarius of Heisterbach, who is to be 
equalled as a gossip only by the less pious SaUmbene, has some 
delightful stories of youthful enthusiasts in the Dialogus Miracu- 
lorum, which he wrote between 1220 and 1235 for the instruction 
of the novices in his own Cistercian house. One child, destined 
for a worldly match, protests daily that she will wed Christ only; 
and, when forced to wear rich garments, asserts "even if you 
turn me to gold you cannot make me change my mind," until 
her parents, worn out by her prayers, allow her to enter a 
nunnery where, although very young, she is soon made governess 
of the novices. Her sister, given to an earthly husband while 
yet a child, is widowed and, "ipsa adhuc adolescentula" enters 
the same house. Another girl, fired by their example, escapes 
to a nunnery in man's clothes; her sister, trying to follow, is 
caught by her parents and married, "but I hope," says the 

1 Reg.Epis. Johannis Peckham (Rolls Series), i, p. 356. Compare Caesarius 
of Heisterbach: " In the diocese of Treves is a certain convent of nuns named 
Lutzerath, wherein by ancient custom no girl is received but at the age of 
seven years or less; which constitution hath grown up for the preservation 
of that simphcity of mind which maketh the whole body to shine" {Dial. 
Mirac. 1, p. 389, quoted in Coulton, Medieval Garner, p. 255). The thirteenth 
century visitations of the diocese of Rouen by Eudes Rigaud make it clear 
that novices there were often very young, eg. at St-Saens in 1266 "una 
earum erat novicia et minima" {Beg. Visil. Archiepiscopi Roihomagensis, 
ed. Bonnin, p. 566). The Archbishop ordered novices to be professed at the 
age of fourteen and not before {ib. pp. 51, 121, 207). 

2 For example the beguine Christina von Stommeln, who said of herself, 
"So far back as my memory can reach, from the earliest dawn of my child- 
hood, whensoever I heard the Uves and manners, the passion and the death 
of saints and especially of our Lord Christ and His glorious Mother, then 
in such hearing I was delighted to the very marrow" (quoted in Coulton, 
op. cit. p. 403). At the age of ten she contracted a mystic marriage with 
Christ, and at the age of thirteen she joined the beguines at Cologne. Cf. 
St Catherine of Siena. 

28 THE NOVICE [ch. 

appreciative Caesarius, "that God may not leave unrewarded 
so fervent a desire to enter religion "i. But the most charming 
tale of all is that of the conversion of Helswindis, Abbess of 

She, although the daughter of a powerful and wealthy man... burned 
so from her earhest childhood with zeal to be converted (i.e. to become 
a nun), that she used often to say to her mother: "Mother, make me 
a nun." Now she was accustomed with her mother to ascend Mount 
St. Saviour, whereon stood at that time the convent of the sisters of 
Burtscheid. One day she chmbed secretly in through the kitchen 
window, went up to the dorter and putting on the habit of one of 
the maidens, entered the choir with the others. When the Abbess 
told this to her mother, who wanted to go, she, thinking that it was 
a joke, replied "Call the child; we must go." Then the child came 
from within to the window, saying: " I am a nun; I will not go with 
thee." But the mother, fearing her husband, rephed: "Only come 
with me now, and I will beg thy father to make thee a nun." And so 
she went forth. It happened that the mother (who had held her 
peace) once more went up the mountain, leaving her daughter asleep. 
And when the latter rose and sought her mother in vain in the church, 
she suspected her to be at the convent, followed her alone, and, getting 
in by the same window, once more put on the habit. When her 
mother besought her to come away she replied: "Thou shalt not 
deceive me again," repeating the promise that had been made to her. 
Then indeed her mother went home in great fear, and her father came 
up full of rage, together with her brothers, broke open the doors and 
carried off his screaming daughter, whom he committed to the care 
of relatives, that they might dissuade her. But she, being (as I believe) 
not yet nine years of age, answered them so wisely that they mar- 
velled. What more? The Bishop of Li%e having excommunicated her 
father and those by whom she had been taken away, she was restored 
to the place and after a few years was elected Abbess there^. 

1 Caesarius of Heisterbach, Dialogus Miraculorum, ed. Joseph Strange, 
I. PP- 53-4- 

2 This was Helswindis von Gimmenich, first abbess of Burtscheid after 
the transference thither of the nuns of St Saviour of Aachen c. 1220-1222. 
See Quix, Gesch. der ehemaligen Reichs-Abtei Burtscheid (Aachen 1834). 

2 Caesarius, op. cit. i, pp. 54-5. For another case of children in this convent 
see the charming story of Gertrude's purgatory, ib. pp. 344-5. There are 
fifteenth century English translations in the Myroure ofOure Ladye (E.E.T.S.) , 
pp. 46-7 and in An Alphabet of Tales (E.ET.S.), p. 249. A little girl of 
nine years old had died, and, after death, appeared in broad dayUght in her 
own place in the choir, next to a child of her own age. The latter was so 
terrified that she was noticed and on being questioned told the vision to the 
Abbess (from whom Caesarius professes to have had the story). The Abbess 
says to the child "Sister Margaret,... if Sister Gertrude come to thee again, 
say to her : Benedicile, and if she reply to thee, Dominus, ask her whence she 
comes and what she seeks." On the following day (continues Caesarius) 
"she came again and since she replied Dominus when she was saluted, the 


After these examples of infant zeal it is impossible to assert 
that even the extreme youth of many novices made a real voca- 
tion for rehgious hfe impossible. But there is no doubt that 
such a vocation was less probable, than in cases when a girl 
of more mature years entered a convent. And it is also certain 
that the tendency to regard monasticism as the natural career 
for superfluous girls and as the natural alternative to marriage, 
was capable of grave abuse. When medieval convents are com- 
pared unfavourably with those of the present day, and when the 
increasing laxity with which the rule was kept in the later middle 
ages is condemned, it has always to be remembered that the 
majority of girls in those days (unUke those of today) entered" 
the nunneries as a career, without any particular spiritual quahfi- 
cation, because there was nothing else for them to do. Even in 
the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries monasticism produced 
saintly women and great mystics (especially in Germany) ; but 
it is remarkable that in England, although there must have been 
many good abbesses like Euphemia of Wherwell, there are no 
outstanding names. Monasticism was pre-eminently a respect- 
able career. 

It has been said that this tendency to regard monasticism 
as a career was capable of abuse; and there were not wanting 
men to abuse it and to use the nunnery as a "dumping ground" 
for unwanted and often unwilling girls, whom it was desirable 
•to put out of the world, by a means as sure as death itself and 
without the risk attaching to murder. Kings themselves were 
wont thus to immure the wives and daughters of defeated rebels. 

maiden added: 'Good Sister Gertrude, why come you at such a time and 
what seek you with us? ' Then she repUed : ' I come here to make satisfaction. 
Because I willingly whispered with thee in the choir, speaking in half tones, 
therefore am I ordered to make satisfaction in that place where it befell me 
to sin. And unless thou beware of the same vice, dying thou shalt suffer 
the same penance.' And when she had four times made satisfaction in the 
same way (by prostrating herself) she said to her sister : ' Now have I com- 
pleted my satisfaction; henceforth thou shalt see me no more.' And thus 
it was done. For in the sight of her friend she proceeded towards the ceme- 
tery, passing over the wall by a miracle. Behold such was the purgatory 
of this virgin." It is a tender Uttle tale, and kinder to childish sins than 
medieval moralists sometimes were; Saint Douceline beat a little girl of 
seven (one of her beguines) "so shrewdly that the blood ran down her ribs, 
saying meanwhile that she would sacrifice her to God" simply because she 
had looked at some men who were at work in the house (see Coulton, 
op. cit. p. 321). 

30 THE NOVICE [ch. 

Wencilian (Gwenllian) daughter of Llewelyn was sent to Sem- 
pringham as a child, after her father's death in 1283, and died 
a nun there in 1337, and the two daughters of Hugh Despenser 
the elder were forced to take the veil at the same convent after 
their father's fall^. The nunnery must often have served the 
purpose of lesser men, desirous of shaking oS an encumbrance. 
The guilty wife of Sir Thomas Tuddenham, unhappily married 
for eight years and ruined by an intrigue with her father's 
servant, was sent to Crabhouse, where she lived for some forty 
years ; and none thought kindly of her save — strangely enough — 
her husband's sister^. Sir Peter de Montfort, dying in 1367, left 
ten shillings to the lady Lora Astley, a nun at Pinley, called by 
Dugdale "his old concubine"^ Illegitimate children too were 
sometimes sent to convents. One remembers Langland's nun- 
nery, where 

Dame lohanne was a bastard, 
And dame Clarice a kni3tes dou3ter ■ ac a kokewolde was hire syxe. 

Nor were the clergy loath to embrace this opportunity of re- 
moving the fruit of a lapse from grace. Hugh de Tunstede, 
rector of Catton, left ten shillings and a bed to his daughter 
Joan, a nun of Wilberfoss*, and at the time of the Dissolution 
there was a child of Wolsey himself at Shaftesbury^ It is 

1 V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 184. But the usual custom was to place such 
women as lay boarders in the custody of a nunnery. See below, pp. 419 ff. 

2 "Processus et sententia divortii inter Thomam Tudenham militem et 
Aliciam filiam quondam Johannis Woodhous armigeri, racione quia est 
monialis professa in prioratu de Crabhous et nunquam camaliter cognita 
per maritum suum predictum durante matrimonio predicto, hcet matri- 
monium predictum duravit et ut vir et uxor cohabitaverunt per spacium 
viij annorum. Durante matrimonio unicus fihus ab eadem suscitatus, non 
tamen per dictum Thomam maritum suum, sed per Ricardum Stapleton 
servientem patris ipsius Aliciae" (1437). Her husband's sister Margaret 
Bedingfield left her a legacy of 10 marks in 1474. Norfolk Archaeology 
(Norf. and Norwich Arch. Soc), xiii, pp. 351-2. 

' Testamenta Vetusta, i, p. 74. 

* Testamenta Eboracensia, i, p. 18. 

' See the letter from John Clusey to Cromwell in her favour: "Rygthe 
honorable, after most humyll comendacyons, I lykewyce besuche you that 
the Contents of this my symple Letter may be secret ; and that for as myche 
as I have grete cause to goo home I besuche your good Mastershipe to 
comand Mr Herytag to give attendans opon your Mastershipe for the know- 
lege off youre plesure in the seyd secrete mater, whiche ys this, My Lord 
Cardinall causyd me to put a yong gentyll homan to the Monystery and 
Nunry off Shafftysbjrry, and there to be provessyd, and wold hur to be 
namyd my doythter; and the troythe ys shew was his dowythter; and now 


significant that it was sometimes necessary to procure the papal 
dispensation of an abbess- or prioress-elect for illegitimacy, before 
she could hold office. The dispensation in 1472 of Joan Ward, 
a nun of Esholt, who afterwards became prioress, is interesting, 
for the Wards were patrons of the house and her presence illus- 
trates one of the uses to which such patronage could be put^. 
The diocese of York affords other instances (they were common 
enough in the case of priests) of dispensation "super defeciu 
natalium" ; in 1474 one was granted to Cecily Conyers, a nun 
at Ellerton, "born of a married man and a single woman "^ and 
in 1432 AUce Etton received one four days before her confirma- 
tion as Prioress of Sinningthwaite^. At St Mary's Neasham in 
1437, the Bishop of Durham appointed Agnes Tudowe prioress 
and issued a mandate for her dispensation for illegitimacy and 
her installation on the same day^. 

Less defensible from the point of view of the house was the 
practice, which certainly existed, of placing in nunneries girls 
in some way deformed, or suffering from an incurable defect. 

Now earth to earth in convent walls. 

To earth in churchyard sod. 
I WcLS not good enough for man. 

And so am given to God. 

by your Visitacyon she haythe commawynment to departe, and knowythe 
not whether Wherefore I humely besuche youre Mastershipe to dyrect 
your Letter to the Abbas there, that she may there contjoiu at hur full age 
to be professed. Withoute dowyte she ys other xxiiij yere full, or shalbe at 
shuche tyme of the here as she was boren, which was abowyte Mydelmas. 
In this your doyng your Mastershipe shall do a very charitable ded, and 
also b5md hur and me to do you such servyce as lyzthe in owre lytell powers; 
as knowythe owre Lord God, whome I liumely besuche prosperyiisly and 
longe to preserve you. Your orator John Clusey, " Ellis, Original Letters, 
Series I, 11, pp. 92-3. An injunction had been made that profession made 
under twenty-four years was iuvaUd, and that novices or girls professed at 
an earlier age were to be dismissed. 

1 V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 161. 

^ Test. Ebor. ill, p. 289, note. She was one of the Conyers of Hornby 
(Richmondshire) and is mentioned in the will of her brother Christopher 
Conyers, rector of Rudby in 1483. 

' V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 177. 

'' V.C.H. Durham, 11, p. 107. For another instance of dispensation and 
installation on the same day see Reg. of Bishop Bronescombe of Exeter, 
ed. Hingeston-Randolph, p. 163. For other dispensations super defectu 
natalium, see Cdl. of Papal Letters, in, p. 470 (cf. Cat. of Petit, i, p. 367), 
v,p. 549 and Reg. Johannis de Trillek Episcopi Herefordensis (Cantilupe Soc), 
p. 404. 


It will be remembered that the practice roused the disapproba- 
tion of Gargantua, whose abbey of Theleme contained only 
beautiful and amiable persons. 

Item, parcequ'en icelluy temps on ne mettoit en religion des femmes, 
sinon celles qu'estoyent borgnes, boiteuses, bossues, laides, deffaictes, 
foUes, insensees, maleficiees et tarees,...("a propos, dist 11 moyne, 
une femme qui n'est ny belle, ny bonne, a quo! vault elle? — A mettre 
en religion, dist Gargantua.— Voyre, dist le moine, et a faire des 
chemises. ")...feut ordonne que la (i.e. k Theleme) ne seroyent receues, 
sinon les belles, bien formees et bien naturees, et les beaux, bien 
formez et bien naturez^. 

Occasionally the nuns seem to have resented or resisted these 
attempts to foist the deformed and the half-witted upon them. 
One of the reasons urged by the obstinate inmates of Stratford 
against receiving little Isabel Bret was that she was deformed 
in her person 2. It was complained against the Prioress of Anker- 
wyke at Alnwick's visitation in 1441 that she made ideotas and 
other unfit persons nuns'; and in 1514 the Prioress of Thetford 
was similarly charged with intending shortly to receive illiterate 
and deformed persons as nuns and especially one Dorothy 
Sturges, a deaf and deformed gentlewoman. Her designs were 
frustrated, but the nuns of Blackborough were less particular 
and in 1532 Dorothy answered among her sisters that nothing 
was in need of reform in that little house*. 

At the time of the Dissolution the Commissioners found that 
one of the nuns of Langley was "in regard a fool''^; and a certain 
Jane Gowring (the name of whose convent has not been preserved) 
sent a petition to Cromwell, demanding whether two girls of 
twelve and thirteen, the one deaf and dumb and the other an 

^ Rabelais, Gargantua, ch. Lii. 

' Reg. Epis. Johannis Peckham (Rolls Ser.), i, p. 367. Cf. pp. 191 ff. 

3 Line. Visit. 11, p. 4. She was also charged with the introduction of 
unsuitable persons as lay boarders, etc. "Item priorissa introducit in 
prioratum diuersos e.xtraneos et ignotos, tarn mares quam feminas et eos 
sustentat communibus expensis domus et aliquas quasi ideotas et alias 
inhabiles fecit moniales. Negat articulum." But ideota probably simply 
means unlearned here, and in the case of Agnes Hosey, below p. 33. Com- 
pare the case at Bival in Normandy 1251. " Ibi est quedam fiha burgensis 
de Valhbus que stulta est." Reg. Visit. Archiep. Rothomag, ed. Bonnin, p. 1 1 1. 

' Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich (Camden See), pp. 91, 311. 

' Gasquet, Henry VIII and the English Monasteries (pop. ed. 1899), 
P- 293- 


idiot, should depart or not^. At Nuncoton in 1440 a nun informed 
Bishop Alnwick that two old nuns lay in the fermery and took 
their meals in the convent's cellar "and likewise the infirm, the 
weak minded (imbecUles) and they that are in their seynies do 
eat in the same cellar"^. Complaints of the presence of idiots 
were fairly frequent. It is easy to understand the exasperation 
of Thetford over the case of Dorothy Sturges, when one finds 
Dame Katherine Mitford complaining at the same visitation 
that Elizabeth Haukeforth is " aliquando lunatica"^; but a few 
years later Agnes Hosey, described as " ideota," gave testimony 
with her sisters at Easebourne and excited no adverse comment*. 
In an age when faith and superstition went hand in hand a mad 
nun might even bring glory to her house ; the tale of Catherine, 
nun of Bungay, illustrates this. In 1319 an inquiry was held 
into the miracles said to have been performed at the tomb of the 
saintly Robert of Winchelsea, Archbishop of Canterbury, whose 
canonisation was ardently desired by the English; among these 
miracles was the following ; 

Sir Walter Botere, chaplain, having been sworn, says that the miracle 
happened thus, to wit that he saw a certain Catherine, who had been 
(so they say) a nun of Bungay, in the diocese of Norwich, mad 
(furiosam) and led to the tomb of the said father; and there she was 
cured of the said madness and so departed sane; and he says that 
there is pubhc talk and report of this. 

Three other witnesses also swore to the tale^. Even cases of 
violent and dangerous madness seem at times to have occurred, 
judging from a note at Alnwick's visitation of Stainfield in 1440, 
in which it is said that aU the nuns appeared separately before 
the Bishop, "with the exception of Ahcia Benyntone, who is out 
of her mind and confined in chains" ^. 

Lay and ecclesiastical opinion ahke condemned another prac- 
tice, which seems to have been fairly widespread in medieval 
England, that of forcing into convents children too young to 
realise their fate, or even girls old enough to resist, of whom 

1 Gairdner, Letters and Papers, etc., ix, no. 1075. 

2 Alnwick's Visit. MS. i. jid. 

' Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich, p. 91. 
* Sussex Archaeol. Coll. ix, p. 26. 
' Wilkins, Concilia, 11, p. 487. 
« Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 77. 

34 THE NOVICE [ch. 

unscrupulous relatives desired to be rid, generally in order to 
gain possession of their inheritance; for a nun, dead in the eyes 
of the law which governed the world, could claim no share in 
her father's estate^ It is true that influential people, who could 
succeed in proving that a nun was unwillingly professed, might 
obtain her release^; but many httle heiresses and unwanted 
children must have remained for ever, without hope of escape, 
in the convents to which they had been hurried, for it is evident 
that the religious houses themselves did all they could to dis- 
courage the presentation of such petitions, or the escape of un- 
willing members. The chanson de nonne, the song of the nun 
unwiUingly professed, is a favourite theme in medieval popular 
poetry^; and dry documents show that it had its foundation in 
fact. It is possible to collect from various sources a remarkable 
series of legal documents which illustrate the practice of putting 
girls into nunneries, so as to secure their inheritance. 

As early as 1 197 there is a case at Ankerwyke, where a nun 
who had been fifteen years professed returned to the world and 

' Hence the certificates sometimes required from bishops to testify 
whether or not a girl had actually been professed. Such a certificate occurs 
in Wykeham's Register (11, p. 192), announcing that Joan, daughter of 
Stephen Asshewy, deceased, was not yet professed at St Mary's Winchester 
or at any other house. The case of Isabel, daughter of Sir Phihp de Coverle, 
is also interesting; she left the wretchedly poor house of Sewardsley to 
claim her share of her mother's inheritance, therewith to provide fit main- 
tenance for herself among the nuns; but she was excluded from inheriting 
with her sisters on account of her rehgious profession {V.C.H. Norihanis. 
II, pp. 125-6). Compare also the case of Joan, wife of Nicholas de Grene 
(1357-8); on a question of inheritance the King's court issued a writ of 
inquiry as to whether she had been professed at Nuneaton {Reg. of Bishop 
Roger de Norbury (William Salt Aichaeol. Soc. Collections, i), pp. 285-7. 

^ See e.g. the commission for the release of a novice preserved in the 
register of Ralph Baldock, Bishop of London (13 10). "We have lately 
received the supphcation of our beloved daughter in Christ, Cristina de 
Burgh, daughter of the noble Sir Robert Fitzwalter, to the effect that 
whereas she was delivered by her parents, while not yet of a marriageable 
age, into the order of St Augustine in the monastery of Haliwell of our 
diocese, and for some time wore the habit of a novice therein and still 
wears it, nevertheless there is no canonical reason why she should not freely 
return to the world at her ovni free will ; and whereas we do condescend to 
licence her to return to the world, having diligently made inquiries in the 
aforesaid monastery for our information as to the truth of the aforesaid 
matters, etc. etc. " ; the Bishop having no time to finish the inquiry himself 
commissions his official to carry it on and to release Cristina if the result is 
satisfactory. Reg. Radulphi Baldock (Cant, and York Soc), p. 129. But 
note that this girl is only a novice. 

' See below, pp. 502-9, and Note H. 


claimed a share of her father's property, on the ground that she 
had been forced into the monastery by a guardian, who wished 
to secure the whole inheritance. Her relatives energetically re- 
sisted a claim by which they would have been the losers and 
appealed to the Pope. The runaway nun was excommunicated 
and her case came into the Curia Regis, but the result has not 
survived and it is impossible to say whether her story was true^. 
The case of Agnes, nun of Haverholme, illustrates at once the 
reason for which an unwilling girl might be immured in a nunnery 
and the obstacles which her order would place in the way of 
escape. She enters history in a papal mandate of 1304, by which 
three ecclesiastics are ordered to take proceedings in the case 
of Agnes, whose father and stepmother (how famihar and like 
a fairy tale it sounds) in order to deprive her of her heritage, 
shut her up in the monastery of Haverholme. "The canons and 
nuns of Sempringham (to which order Haverholme belonged) de- 
clare," continues the mandate, "that she took the habit out of 
devotion, but refuse to confirm their assertion by oath "2. The 
inference is irresistible. Another case, the memory of which is 
preserved in a petition to Chancery, concerns Katherine and 
Joan, the two daughters of Thomas Norfolk, whose widow Agnes 
married a certain Richard Haldenby. Agnes was seised of certain 
lands and tenements in Yorkshire to the value of £40 a year, 
as the nearest friend of the two girls, whose share of their father's 
estate the lands were. But her remarriage roused the wrath of 
the Norfolk family and an uncle, John Norfolk, dispossessed her 
of the land and took the children out of her guardianship, " with 
great force of armed men against the peace of our lord the king," 
breaking open their doors and carrying away the deeds of their 
possessions. Then, according to the petition of Agnes and her 
second husband, "did he make the said Katherine a nun, when 
she was under the age of nine years, at a place called Walling- 
wells, against her will, and the other daughter of the aforesaid 
Thomas Norfolk he hath killed, as it is said." The mother begs 
for an inquiry to be held^. 

But the most vivid of all these little tragedies of the cloister 
are those concerned with Margaret de Prestewych and Clarice 

1 V.C.H. Bucks. I, p. 355. ^ Cal. of Papal Letters, 1, p. 17. 

' P.R.O. Early Chanc. Proc. 7/70. 


36 THE NOVICE [ch. 

Stil. The case of Margaret de Prestewych has been preserved in 
the register of Robert de Stretton, Bishop of Coventry and 
Lichfield ; and it is satisfactory to know that one energetic girl 
at least succeeded in making good her protests and in escaping 
from her prison. In her eighth year or thereabouts, according 
to her own petition to the Pope, her friends compelled her 
against her will to enter the priory of the nuns of Seton, of the 
order of St Augustine, and take on her the habit of a novice. 
She remained there, as in a prison, for several years, always pro- 
testing that she had never made nor ever would willingly make 
any profession. And then, seeing that she must by profession 
be excluded from her inheritance, she feigned herself sick and 
took to her bed. But this did not prevent her being carried to 
the church at the instance of her rivals and blessed by a monk, 
in spite of her cries and protests that she would not remain in 
that priory or in any other order. On the first opportunity she 
went forth from the priory without leave and returned to the 
world, which in heart she had never left, and married Robert 
de Holand, pubhcly after banns, and had issue. The bishop, to 
whom the case had been referred by the Pope, found upon in- 
quiry that these things were true, and in 1383 released her from 
the observance of her order^. 

Within a few years of this high spirited lady's escape the 
case of little Clarice Stil engaged the attention of the King's 
court. The dry-as-dust pages of the medieval law-books hide 
many jewels for whoever has patience to seek them, but none 
brighter than this story. It all arose out of a writ of wardship 
sued by one David Carmayngton or Servyngton against Walter 
Reynold, whom he declared to have unjustly deforced him of the 
wardship of the land and heir of Robert Stil, the heir being 

■ Reg. of Bishop Robert de Stretton (Will. Salt Archaeol. Soc. Collections, 
N.S. viii), pp. 149-50. With her case compare that of Jane Wadham, 
which came up after the Dissolution in 1541. She "after arriving at years 
of discretion was forced by the threats and machinations of malevolent 
persons to become a regular nun in the house of nuns at Romsey, but having 
both in public and in private always protested against this seclusion, she 
conceived herself free from regular observance and in that persuasion joined 
herself in matrimony with one John Foster, per verba de presenti, intending 
to have the marriage solemnised as soon as she was free from her religion." 
For the further vicissitudes of her married life, see Liveing, Records of 
Romsey Abbey, p. 255. Compare also the case of Margery of Hedsor who 
left Burnham in 1311. V.C.H. Bucks, i, p. 383. 


Clarice. Walter, however, said that no action lay aga:inst him, 
because Clarice had entered into the order of St John of Jerusalem, 
of which the Prioress of Buckland was prioress, and had been 
professed in that order on the very day of the purchase of the 
writ. In answer David unfolded a strange story. He aheged that 
William Stil, the father of Robert, had married twice; by his 
first wife Constance he had one daughter Margaret, who was 
now the wife of Walter Reynold; by his second wife Joan he 
had two children, Robert and Clarice. William died seised of 
certain tenements which were inherited by Robert, who died 
without an heir of his body ; whereupon (David alleged) Walter, 
by connivance with the Prioress of Buckland and in order to 
disinherit Clarice (in which case his own wife Margaret would 
be the next of kin), took Clarice after her brother's death and 
conveyed her to Buckland Priory, she being then eight years of 
age, and kept her there under guard. David's counsel gave a 
dramatic account of the proceeding : 

Sir, we say that the same Walter by covinage to compel the said 
Clarice to be professed, took the said Clarice when she was between 
the ages of seven and eight years, to the house of nuns at Buckland, 
and in that place were two ladies, nuns, who were of his assent to 
cause the infant to be professed, and they told the child that if she 
passed the door the devil would carry her away. 

It was furthermore pleaded that on the day of purchase of the 
writ, Clarice was within the age of twelve years and that she 
was still within that age, and that therefore she could not be 
considered professed by the law of the land. By this time one's 
sympathies are all on the side of David, and of terrified little 
Clarice, with whom the devil was to run away. Unfortunately 
the judges referred the matter to an ecclesiastical court and 
ordered a writ to be sent to the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The 
Bishop made his return 

that the said Clarice on August ist, 1383, of her own free will, was 
taken to the said Prioress of Buckland by Stephen Joseph, rector 
of the church of Northeleye, without any connivance on the part 
of the said Walter and the said Prioress, and she remained at 
the said priory for two years to see if the life would please her. 
Afterwards, on October i8th, 1385, she assumed the rehgious habit 
and made profession according to the manners and customs of the 
said house. And on the day when Clarice entered the house she was 
more than eight years old and on the day of purchase of the writ 

38 THE NOVICE [ch. 

more than twelve years old, and at the present time is more than 
fourteen years old, and is well contented with the rehgious Ufe. 

The Bishop also found that no guards had been placed over 
Clarice by Walter, or by the Prioress. So David lost his suit 
and was in mercy for a false claim; and he also lost, upon a 
technical point, another suit which he had brought against the 
Prioress of Buckland. Nevertheless one's sympathies remain 
obstinately on his side. That touch about the devil assuredly 
never sprang even from the fertile brain of a lawyer^. 

The illegitimate, the deformed, the feeble-minded and the 
unwilling represent a not very pleasant side of the conventual 
system. The nunneries contained other and less tragic inmates, 
who may be distinguished from the majority; for to them went 
in voluntary retirement a large number of widows^. If the nun 
unwilUngly professed has always been a favourite theme in 
popular hterature, so also has the broken-hearted wife or lover, 
Guinevere hiding her sorrows in the silent cloister. 

Many of the widows who took the veil were, however, less 
romantic figures. Although their presence as secular boarders 
was discouraged, because it brought too much of the world 

1 Year Book of 12 Richard II, ed. G. F. Deiser (Ames Foundation, 1914), 
pp. 71-7. Cf. pp. 150-3. It may be noticed that Marvell, in his poem 
"Upon Appleton House" (dedicated to the great Lord Fairfax), preserves 
the tradition of another of these cases. In the time of Anna Langton, the 
last Prioress of Nunappleton, a certain Isabella Thwaites, who had been 
placed in her charge, fell in love with William Fairfax. The Prioress, who 
wished her to become a nun, shut her up, but eventually Fairfax, having 
got the law upon his side, broke his way into the nunnery and released her 
and she married him in 151 8. It was her sons who obtained the house on 
its dissolution (see Markham, Life of the great Lord Fairfax, pp. 3, 4). 

For a somewhat similar case to that of Clarice Stil, see Gentleman' s Maga- 
zine, vol. 102, p. 615. A widow Joan de Swainton married a widower Hugh 
de Tuthill. She had four daughters by her first husband, and of these 
Hugh married two to his own two sons by his first wife, and placed the other 
two (they being under twelve years of age) in the nunnery of Kirklees, in 
order that his two sons might obtain through their wives the whole inherit- 
ance of the co-heiresses. But the wardship of the girls belonged to a certain 
William de Notton, who prepared to dispute the arrangement, but was 
dissuaded by one of the young nuns. 

^ It was probably more common for widows to take a simple vow of 
chastity and to remain in the world. But the will of Thomas de Kent, 
fishmonger, seems to show that it would be considered quite natural for a 
widow to take the veil, even in the burgess class, which possibly remarried 
more frequently than the nobles. He left his wife a tenement for hfe, adding 
that should she wish to enter any religious house the same was to be sold 
and half the proceeds given for her maintenance (Sharpe, op. cit. I, p. 124). 


within cloister walls, those who desired to make regular profes- 
sion were willingly received, the more so as they often brought 
a substantial dower with them. Thus when Margaret, Countess 
of Ulster, assumed the habit at Campsey in 1347, she took with 
her, by hcence of the Crown, the issues of all her lands and rents 
in England for a year after her admission, and after that date 
200 marks yearly were to be paid for her sustenance^. Such 
widows often enjoyed a respect consonant with their former 
position in society and not infrequently became heads of their 
houses. Katherine de Ingham and Eleanor Lady Scrope both 
entered the Minories in their widowhood and eventually became 
abbesses^ But it does not need much imagination, nor an unduly 
cynical temperament, to guess that this element of convent hfe 
must occasionally have been a disturbing one. The conventual 
atmosphere did not always succeed in killing the profaner pas- 
sions of the soul; and the advent of an opinionated widow, ripe 
in the experience of all those things which her sisters had never 
known, with the aplomb of one who had long enjoyed an 
honoured position as wife and mother and lady of the manor, 
must at times have caused a flutter among the doves; such a 
situation, for instance, as Bishop Cobham found at Wroxall 
when he visited it in 1323^. Isabel Lady Clinton of Maxstoke, 
widow of the patron of the house, had retired thither and had 
evidently taken with her a not too modest opinion of her own 
importance. She found it impossible to forget that she was a 
Clinton and to realise that she, who had in time gone by given 
her easy patronage to the nuns and lodged with them when she 
would, was now a simple sister among them. Was she to submit 
to the rule of Prioress Agnes of Alesbury, she without whose 
goodwill Prioress Agnes had never been appointed ? Was she to 
listen meekly to chiding in the dorter, and in the frater to bear 
with sulks? Impossible. How she comported herself we know 
not, but the bishop "found grave discord existing between the 
Prioress and dame Isabel Chnton, some of the sisters adhering 
to one and some to the other." Evidently a battle royal. The 

1 V.C.H. Suffolk, II, p. 113. Cf. Testamenta Eboracensia, 1, p. 117. 

2 V.C.H. London, i, p. 519. CI Sybil de Felton, widow of Sir Thomas 
Morley, who became Abbess of Barking in 1393, at the age of thirty-four. 
V.C.H. Essex, 11, p. 121. 

' V.C.H. Warwick, 11, p. 71. 


bishop, poor man, did his best. He enjoined peace and concord 
among the inmates; the sisters were to treat the prioress with 
reverence and obedience; those who had rebelled against her 
were to desist and the prioress was to behave amicably to all 
in frater, dorter, and elsewhere. And so my lord went his way. 
He may have known the pertinacity of the late patroness ; and 
it was perhaps with resignation and without surprise that he 
confirmed her election as prioress on the death of the harassed 

The occasional cases in which wives left their husbands to 
enter a convent were less likely to provoke discord. Such women 
as left husband and children to take the veil must have been 
moved by a very strong vocation for religion, or else by excessive 
weariness. Some may perhaps have found married life even such 
an odious tale, " a licking of honey off thorns," as the misguided 
realist who wrote Hali Meidenhad sought to depict it. In 
any case, whether the mystical faith of a St Bridget drew her 
thither, or whether matrimony had not seemed easy to her that 
had tried it, the presence of a wedded wife was unhkely to pro- 
voke discord in the convent ; the devout and the depressed are 
quiet bedeswomen. It was necessary for a wife to obtain her 
husband's permission before she could take the veil, since her 
action entailed celibacy on his part also, during her Ufetime. 
Sometimes a husband would endow his wife hberally on her 
entry into the house which she had selected. There are two such 
dowers in the Register of Godstow Nunnery. About 1165 William 
de Seckworth gave the tithes of two mills and a grant of five 
acres of meadow to the convent, " for the helth of hys sowle and 
of hys chyldryn and of hys aunceters, with hys wyfe also, the 
whyche he toke to kepe to the forseyd holy mynchons to serve 
god"i; and a quarter of a century later Geoffrey Durant and 
Molde his wife, "whan J^e same Moole yelded herself to be a 
mynchon to the same chirch," granted one mark of rent to be 
paid annually by their son Peter, out of certain lands held by 
him, "which were of the mariage of the said Moolde"^. Nor 
did Walter Hauteyn, citizen of London, in his solicitude for his 

' English Register of Godstow Nunnery (E.E.T.S.), p. 43. 
^ lb. p. 383. Confirmation of this deed of grant by Peter Durant, about 
1200. lb. p. 384. 


son and three daughters, forget the mother who had left her 
husband and children for the service of God; to Ahce his wife, 
a nun of St Sepulchre's Canterbury, he bequeathed in 1292 his 
dwelling place and rents upon Cornhill for life, with remainder 
to his heirs*. 

1 Sharpe, op. cit. i, p. 108. 



"My lady Prioresse, by your leve 

So that I wiste I sholde you not greve, 

I wolde demen that ye tellen sholde 

A tale next, if so were that ye wolde. 

Now wol ye vouche-sauf, my lady dere? " 

"Gladly" quod she, and seyde as ye shal here. 


It usually happened that the head of a nunnery was a won 
of some social standing in her own right. All nuns were Chri 
brides, but an earthly father in the neighbourhood, with bn 
acres and loose purse strings, was not to be despised. I 
great lady retired to a nunnery she was very like to end as 
head; Barking Abbey in Essex had a long hne of well-b 
abbesses, including three queens and two princesses; and w 
Katherine de la Pole (the youngest daughter of that ear 
Suffolk who was slain at Agincourt) is found holding the posil 
of abbess at the tender age of twenty-two, it is an irresist 
inference that her birth was a factor in the choice^. The advani 
in having a woman of local influence and rich connection; 
prioress is illustrated in the history of Crabhouse nunnery ur 
Joan Wiggenhall^; how she worked and built "be the grac 

1 V.C.H. Essex, ii, pp. 120-2. Margaret Botetourt became At 
of Polesworth in 1362, by episcopal dispensation, when under the aj 
twenty. " This early promotion was not the only mark of favour which 
prioress obtained. In 1390 the Pope granted her exemption from the j 
diction of the Archbishop or Bishop of Lichfield." V.C.H. Warwic) 

P- 63- 

' "I take it that Prioress Joan was an heiress, and, in fact, the 
representative of the elder line of her family, and the nuns knew perf 
well what they were about when they chose a lady of birth and wealth 
highly connected to boot, to rule over them. They certainly were nol 
appointed in any expectations they may have formed. The new pri 
set to work in earnest to make the nunnery into quite a new and impi 
place and her friends and kinsfolk rallied round her nobly." Jessopp, 
and Downs oj an Old Nunnery in Frivola, pp. 59-60. 


oure Lord God an be the helpe of Edmund Perys, Person of 
Watlington," her cousin; and how 

whanne this good man beforeseyde was passid to God, oure Lord 
that is ful graciouse to alle his servauntis that have nede and that 
troste on hym, sente hem anothir goode frende hem to helpe and 
comforte in her nede, clepid Mayster Jon Wygenale, Doctoure of 
Canon and person of Oxborow, and Cosyn to the same Prioresse ; 

and how 

in the xix yere of the same Prioresse, ffel a grete derth of come, 
wherefore sche muste nedis have lefte werke with oute relevynge and 
helpe of sum goode creature, so, be the steringe of oure Lord, Mayster 
Jon Wygenale befor sayde sente us of his charite an 100 cowmbe 
malte and an 100 coumbe Early and besyde this procurid us xx mark. 
And for the soule of my lord of Exetyr, of whos soule God of hys 
pyte he wil have mercy, we had of him xl pounte and v mark to the 
same werke, whiche drewe ccc mark, without mete and drinke. And 
within these vij yere that the dortoure was in makynge the place at 
Lynne clepped Comer Bothe was at the gate downe and no profite 
came to the place many yeris befome. So that maystir Jon before 
seyde of hys gret charite lente the same prioresse good to make it 
up agejme and procured hir xx mark of the sekatouris of Roger 

The election of a superior was a complicated business, as 
may be gathered from the list of seventeen documents relating 
to the election of Alice de la Flagge as Prioress of Whiston in 
1308, and enrolled in the Sede Vacante Register of Worcester 
diocese^. Indeed there were so many formahties to be fulfilled 

1 Reg. of Crabhouse Nunnery, ed. Mary Bateson (Norf. Archaeology , 
^1). PP- 57-62 passim. 

^ They are as follows: (i) congi d'ilire by the Bishop-Elect as patron, 
(2) notification by the subprioress and nuns of the date appointed for the 
election, (3) formal warning by the subprioress that all who ought not to be 
present should leave the chapter house, (4) notification of the election of 
Alice de la Flagge, (5) declaration of Alice's assent, (6) letter from subprioress 
and convent to the Bishop-Elect praying him to confirm the election 

(7) letter from the Prior of Worcester to the same effect, to the Bishop-Elect, 

(8) the same to the commissary general, (9) commission from the Bishop- 
Elect to the Prior and to the commissary-general, empowering them to 
receive, examine and confirm the election, (10) instrument by the subprioress 
and convent appointing Richard de Bereburn, chaplain, their proctor to 
present the elect to the Bishop-Elect, (11) another appointing two of the 
nuns as proctors "to instruct and do things concerning the business of the 
election," (12) decree by the subprioress and convent, describing the method 
and result of the election and addressed to the Bishop-Elect, (13) acts 
concerning the election made before the Bishop's commissaries by Richard 


that the nuns seem often to have found great difficulty in making 
a canonical election, and there are frequent notices in the epis- 
copal registers that their election has been quashed by the 
Bishop on account of some technical fault ; in such cases, how- 
ever, the Bishop's action was merely formal and he almost 
always reappointed the candidate of their choice^ An election 
was, moreover, not only comphcated but expensive; it began 
with a journey to the patron to ask for his conge d'elire and it 
ended with more journeys, to the patron and to the Bishop, , 
to ask for confirmation, so that the cost of travel and the cost 
of pajdng a clerk to draw up the necessary documents were 
sometimes considerable; moreover a fee .was payable to the 
Bishop's official for the installation of the new head. The account 
of Margaret Ratclyff, Prioress of Swaffham Bulbeck in 1482, 
contains notice of payments "to the official of the lord bishop, 
at the installation of the said prioress for his fee i. h." and to 
one Bridone "for the transcript of the decree of election of the 
prioress v. s."^ An account roll of St Michael's Stamford for 
the year 1375-6 illustrates the process in greater detail; under 
the heading of " expenses de nostre Elit " are the following items : 

Paid for the hire of horses with expenses going to the abbot of Peter- 
borough [the patron] to get licence to elect our choice g\d. Paid for 
the hire of horses going to the bishop of Lincoln and to the abbot of 
Peterborough and for their expenses at our election 4s. B^d. Paid 
for bread, ale and meat for our election on the election day 2S. ii^d. 

de Bereburn, proctor, by the subprioress and by the two nuns, instructrices, 
examined on oath, (14) certificate by the Dean of the Christianity of Wor- 
cester that he had proclaimed the election, (15) confirmation of the election 
by the commissaries, (16) final declaration by the Prior of this confirmation 
and of the installation and benediction of the new prioress and of the in- 
junction of obedience upon the nuns, and (17) a certificate by the commis- 
saries of the Bishop-Elect that the business was completed. Reg. Sede Va- 
cante (Wore. Hist. Soc), pp. 111-4; the teKt inNash, Hist, and Antiquities 
of Worcestershire (1781), i, pp. 212-6, which also contains many documents 
relating to the election of other prioresses of this house. There are frequent 
notices of elections in episcopal registers ; for other very detailed accounts, 
see Reg. of Bishop Grandisson of Exeter, ed. Hingeston-Randolph, pt in, 
pp. 999-1002 (Canonsleigh) and Reg. of Ralph of Shrewsbury (Somerset Rec. 
Soc.) pp. 284-7 (Cannington). See also Eckenstein, Woman under Monastic- 
ism, pp. 367-8. 

^ See e.g. V.C.H. Glouc. n, p. 93; Reg. of Bishop Grandisson, pt n, 
p. 742; V.C.H. Yorks. ni, pp. H4-5, 120, 124; Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 636; 
ib. V, p. 207; V.C.H. Durham, 11, p. 107. 

^ Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 458. 





Paid for a letter to the abbot of Peterborough for a licence to elect ^d. 
Paid for the installation of our elect, los.^ Total i8s. i^d.'^ 

The only necessary qualifications for the head of a house were 
that she should be above the age of twenty-one^, born in wedlock 
and of good reputation; a special dispensation had to be obtained 
for the election of a woman who was under age or illegitimate. 

As a rule the nuns possessed the right of free election, subject 
to the conge d'elire of their patron and to the confirmation of 
the bishop, and they secured without very much difficulty the 
leader of their choice. Often enough it must have been clear, 
especially in small communities, that one of the nuns was better 
fitted to rule than her sisters, and, as at Whiston, they 

unanimously, as if inspired by the Holy Spirit*, chose dame Alice de 
la Flagge, a woman of discreet hfe and morals, of lawful age, professed 
in the nunnery, born in lawful matrimony, prudent in spiritual and 
temporal matters, of whose election all approved, and afterwards, 
solemnly singing Te Deum Laudamus, carried the said elect, weeping, 
resisting as much as she could, and expostulating in a high voice, 
to the church as is the custom, and immediately afterwards, brother 
William de Grimeley, raonk of Worcester, proclaimed the election. 
The said elect, after being very often asked, at length, after due 
deliberation, being unwiUing to resist the divine will, consented^. 

But Jocehn of Brakelond has taught us that a monastic election 
was not always a foregone conclusion, that discussion waxed 
hot and barbed words flew in the season of blood-letting "when 
the cloistered monks were wont to reveal the secrets of their 
hearts in turn and to discuss matters one with another," and 
that "many men said many things and every man was fully 
persuaded in his own mind." Nuns were not very different from 
monks when it came to an election, and the chance survival of 
a bishop's register and of another formal document among the 

^ Evidently this was the usual payment here, for, in the roll for 1392-3, 
there is an item " Paye al officiale pour staUing de prioris xs." P.R.O. Mins. 
Accts. 1260/4. 

' P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1260. 

^ The Cistercians fixed the age at 30. Later the Council of Trent fixed 
it at 40 including 8 years of profession. 

* An election by acclamation was said to be conducted via Spiritus 
sancti or per inspiralionem. For this and the methods of election via 
scrutinii and via compromissi , see J. Wickham Legg, On the Three Ways of 
Canonical Election (Trans. St Paul's Eccles. Sac. iii, 299-312). 

= Reg. Sede Vacanie (Wore. Hist. Soc), p. 114, and Nash, op. cit. i, p. 214. 


muniments of Lincoln, has preserved the record of an election 
comedy at Elstow Abbey, almost worthy to rank with Jocelin's 
inimitable account of the choice of Samson the subsacrist. 

After the death of Abbess Agnes Gascoigne in July 1529, the 
nineteen nuns of Elstow, having received Henry VIII's conge 
d'elire, assembled in their chapter house on August 9th, to 
elect her successor. They chose Master John Rayn " utriusque 
juris doctor em," as director, Edward Watson, notary public as 
clerk, and the Prior of Caldwell and the rectors of Great Billing 
and Turvey as witnesses. Three novices and other lay persons 
having departed, the director and the other men explained the 
forms of election to the nuns in the vulgar tongue and they 
agreed to proceed by way of scrutiny. Matilda Sheldon, sub- 
prioress, Alice Boifeld, precentrix, and Anne Preston, ostiaria 
(doorkeeper) were chosen as scrutineers and withdrew into a 
corner of the chapter house, with the notary and witnesses. There 
Matilda Sheldon and Anne Preston nominated CeciUa Starkey, 
refectoraria, while Alice Boifeld nominated Ehzabeth Boifeld, sacrist, 
evidently a relative. The three scrutineers then called upon the 
other nuns to give their votes; Anne Wake, the prioress, named 
Ceciha Starkey; Ehzabeth Boifeld and CeciHa Starkey (each un- 
able to vote for herself, but determined not to assist the other) 
voted for a third person, the subsacrist Helen Snawe; and Helen 
Snawe and all the other nuns, except two, gave their votes in 
favour of Elizabeth Boifeld. Consternation reigned among the 
older nuns, prioress, subprioress, refectoraria and doorkeeper, 
when this result was announced. " Well," said the Prioress, " some 
of thies yong Nunnes be to blame," and on the director asking 
why, she rephed: "For they wolde not shewe me so muche; for 
I asked diverse of them before this day to whome they wolde 
gyve their voices, but they wolde not shewe me." "What said 
they to you?" asked the director. "They said to me," rephed 
the flustered and indignant prioress, "they wolde not tell to 
whome they wolde gyve their voices tyll the tyme of thellection, 
and then they wolde gyve their voices as God shulde put into 
their mynds, but this is by counsaill. And yet yt wolde have 
beseemed them to have shewn as much to me as to the others." 
And then she and Dame Cecilia said, "What, shulde the yong 
nunnes gyve voices? Tushe, they shulde not gyve voices!" 


Clearly the situation was the same which Jocelin of Brakelond 

had described over three centuries before: "The novices said of 

their elders that they were invalid old men and little capable 

of ruling an abbey." However the Prioress was obliged to admit 

that the younger nuns had voted in the last election and the 

subprioress thereupon, in the name of the scrutineers, announced 

the election of Dame Elizabeth Boifeld by the " more and sounder 

part of the convent" (poor Anne Wake!). But the Prioress and 

disappointed Dame Ceciha still showed iight ; the votes must be 

referred to the Bishop of Lincoln. Further discussion; then 

Dame CeciUa gracefuUy gave way ; she consented to the election 

of Dame EUzabeth Boifeld and would not proceed further in 

the matter. Master John Rayn pubUshed the election at the 

steps of the altar. Helen Snawe (whom after events showed to 

be a leading spirit in the affair) and Katherine Wingate were 

chosen as proctors, to seek confirmation from the Bishop, and 

Dame Elizabeth was taken to the altar (amid loud chanting 

of Te Deum Laudamus by the triumphant younger nuns) and 

her election announced. She, however, preserved that decorous 

semblance of unwiUingness, or at least of indifference, which 

custom demanded from a successful candidate, even when she 

had been pulling strings for days, for when the proctors came to 

her at two o'clock "in a certain upper chamber called Marteyns, 

in our monastery" and asked her consent to her election, "she 

neither gave it nor refused." Away went the proctors, without 

so much as a wink to each other; let us leave our elect to meditate 

upon the will of God. At four p.m. they came to her " in a certain 

large garden, called the Pond Yard, within our monastery " ; and 

at their repeated instances she gave her consent. "Wherefore 

we, the above-named nuns, pray the Lord Bishop to ratify and 

confirm our election of the said EHzabeth Boyf eld as our Abbess. 

Which the Lord Bishop didi. 

But this was by no means the end of the matter. A year 
later the whole nunnery was ift-an uproar^. The bishop, for 
reasons best known to himself, had removed the prioress Dame 
Anne Wake and had appointed Dame Helen Snawe in her place; 

^ From a document preserved at the Exchequer Gate, Lincoln. 
' For the following account, see Line. Epis. Reg. Visit. Longland, ff. 22- 


perhaps Dame Anne had said "Tush" once too often under the 
new regime; perhaps she was getting too old for her work; or 
perhaps Abbess EUzabeth Boifeld had only commanded Dame 
Snawe's intrigues at a price; evidently the subsacrist was no 
less adroit than that other subsacrist of Bury St Edmund's. At 
any rate Dame Anne Wake was put out of her office and Dame 
Helen Snawe ruled in her stead. It might have been expected 
that this change would be welcomed by the nuns, considering 
how strong the Boifeld faction had been at the election of the 
Abbess. But no; during the year of triumph Helen Snawe had 
aroused the hearty disHke of her sisters; led by Dames Barbara 
Gray (who had voted against the Abbess at the last election) 
and Alice Bowlis they had strenuously opposed her substitution 
for the old Prioress; they had been impertinent to the Abbess 
of their own choice (indeed she was only a figure-head) ; they 
had written letters to their friends and refused to show them to 
her; and finally when the election of Dame Snawe was announced, 
they had risen in a body and left the chapter-house as a protest. 
This was intolerable, and the Bishop's vicar-general came down 
to examine the delinquents. Matilda Sheldon, the subprioress, 
admitted to having left the chapter, but denied that she had 
done so for the reason attributed and said that she did not know 
of the departure of the other nuns, until she saw them in the 
dorter. Margaret Nicolson showed more spirit; she said that 
she went out "because she wold not consent that my lady Snawe 
shulde be priores," and that "ther was none that ded councell 
hir to goo" and that "my lady abbes did commaunde them to 
tary, that not withestandyng they went forthe"; and she gave 
the names of eight nuns who had followed the subprioress out. 
Dame Barbara Gray was next asked "yf she ded aske Ucence 
of my Lady Abbas to wryte letters to hir trends," and rephed 
"that she ded aske licens to wryte to hir trends and my Lady 
Abbas sade, ' Yf ye showe me what ye wryte I am content,' and 
she saide agene, ' I have done my devoir to aske Ucence, and yf 
ye wyll nede see it I will wryte noo letters.'" Asked whether 
she had left the chapter house, this defiant young woman de- 
clared that " yf it were to do agene she wolde soo doo," and more- 
over " that she cannot fynde in hir hert to obbey my lady Snawe ' 
as priores, and that she wyll rather goo out of the house by 


my lord's licence, or she wyll obbey hir . . . and that she wyll 
never obbey hir as priores, for hir hert cannot serve hir. " Asked 
for her objection to Dame Snawe, she said that "she wyll shewe 
noo cause at thys tyme wherfor she cannot love hir"; but after 
a little pressure she declared with heat that "the priores maks 
every faute a dedly syne "^, treats all of them ill except her own 
self and if she " doo take an oppynyon she wyll kepe itt," whether 
it be right or wrong. Dame Margery Preston was next examined 
and was evidently rather frightened at the result of her actions ; 
she said that she had left the chapter-house as a protest against 
the deposition of the old prioress and not for any ill will that 
she bore Dame Snawe, "and she sais," the record continues, 
"that she ys well content to obbey my lady Snawe as priores. 
And she desiers my lord to be a good lord to the olde priores, 
because of her age." Ill-used Dame Cecilia Starkey, so unkindly 
circumvented by Dame Snawe a year ago, next appeared before 
the vicar-general and said "that she went forthe of the chapter 
howse, but she sais she gave noo occasion to eny of hir susters 
to goo forthe. And says she knewe not howe many of hir susters 
went forthe whyle she come intoo the dorter; saynge that she 
cannot fynde in hir hert nor wyll not accepte and take my lady 
Snawe as priores" (an amusing comment on her vote in 1529). 
Next came Dame Ahce Foster, who admitted to having left the 

and sais that they war commanded by the Abbes to tare styll. But 
she and other went forth because the olde priores was put done [i.e. 
down] wrongfully and my lady Snawe put in agenst ther wylle, 
saynge that she wyll never agre to hir as long as she lyvys; she says 
the sub-prioress went forthe of the chapiter howse fjn-st and then she 
and other f olowyde ; 

and evidence in almost the same words was given by Dame 
Anne Preston and by Dame Ehzabeth Sinclere, the latter adding 
that "she wyll take tholde priores as priores as longe as she levys 
and no other, and she says yf my lord commaunde vs to take 
my lady Snawe to be priores, she had lever goo forthe of the 
howse to sum other place and wyll not tare ther." Dame Alice 
Bowhs, another young rebel, asked 

'^ Compare the complaint of one of the nuns at St Michael's Stamford in 
1445, "Dicit quod priorissa est sibi nimis rigorosa in correccionibus, nam 
pro leuibus punit eam rigorose." Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 96. 

P.N. + 


yf she ded aske lycence of the Abbes to wryte, she sais she ded aske 
Hcens to wryte and my lady Abbes seyde " My lord hathe gevyn vs 
800 strate commaundement that none shuld wryte no (letter) but ye 
shewe it to me, what ye doo wryte " ; and she sais she mayde aunswer 
agene to thabbes, " It hathe not bene soo in tymis paste and I have 
done my dewty. I wyll not wryte nowe at this tyme " ; she admitted 
that she left the chapter house, " but she says that nobody ded move 
hyr to goo forthe; she says that she must neds nowe obbey the 
priores at my lords commaundement, saynge that my lady Snawe ys 
not mete for that offes, butt she wolde shewe noo cause wherfor." 

Two Other nuns declared with great boldness " That my lord ded 
not commaunde vs to tak my lady Snawe as priores, but he 
saide, ' Yf ye wyll not take hir as priores I wyll make hir priores 
and that "they was wont to have the priores chosyn by the 
Abbes and the convent, and not by my lord, after seynte Bennet's 
rule," one of them remarking cryptically "that she wyll take 
my lady Snawe as priores as other wyll doo " and not otherwise. 
Meek little Dame Katherine Cornwallis was then interrogated 
and said, 

"that she was going forthe of the chapiter howse wt. other of hir 
susters and then when she herde my lady abbes commaund them to 
tary, she ded tary behynde, but she sais that she thynks that none 
of the Oder susters that went forthe ded here hyr, but only she " (kind 
little Dame Katherine), "and she is sory that tholde priores ys put out 
of hir offes. She says that my lady abbes ded tare styll and domina 
AUcia Boyfelde, domina Snawe, domina Katherina Wyngate, domina 
Dorothia Commaforthe, domina Elizabethe Repton, and domina 
Elizabeth Stanysmore." 

Finally the ill-used abbess made her complaint ; she had bidden 
saucy Dame Alice Bowhs and others to stand up at matins, 
according to the custom of the house, "and went out of hir stall 
to byde them soo doo, and lady Bowlis ded make hir awnswer 
agene that, 'ye have mayde hir priores that mayde ye abbes J', 
brekyng her silence ther." Evidently poor Elizabeth Boifeld 
had not succeeded in living down the intrigues which had 
preceded her election, and the convent suspected her of rewarding 
a supporter at the expense of an old opponent. 

Here was a pretty state of affairs in the home of buxomness 
and peace. But the vicar-general acted firmly. Barbara Gray 
and Alice Bowlis were given a penance for their disobedi- 
ence; they were to keep silence; neither of them was to come 
within "the howse calde the misericorde" (where meat was 


allowed to be eaten), but they were always to have their meals 
in the frater; neither of them was to write any letters; and 
they were to take the lowest places of all among the sisters in 
"processions and in other placys." Finally all the nuns were 
enjoined to be obedient to the abbess and to the hated prioress. 
Their protests that they would never obey Dame Alice Snawe, 
while the old prioress lived, were all in vain; and when some ten 
years later the Reformation put an end to their dissensions by 
casting them all upon the world. Dame Elizabeth Boyvill [sic), 
"abbesse," received an annual pension of £50, Dame Helen 
Snawe, "prioresse," one of £4 and Dame Anne Wake, "prioresse 
quondam," one of 66s. 8d.^ 

The turbulent diocese of York provides us with an even more 
striking picture of an election-quarrel. In 1308, after a vacancy, 
the election of the Prioress of Keldholme lapsed to the Arch- 
bishop, who appointed Emma of York. But the nuns would have 
none of Emma. Six of them refused obedience to the new prioress 
and, six being probably at least half of the whole convent, Emma 
of York resigned. Not to be daunted the Archbishop returned 
to the charge; on August 5th he wrote to the Archdeacon of 
Cleveland stating that as he found no one in the house capable 
of ruling it he had appointed Joan de Pykering, a nun of Rose- 
dale, to be Prioress. 

As a number of persons (named) had openly and publicly obstructed 
the appointment of the new prioress the Archdeacon was to proceed 
immediately to Keldholme and give her corporal possession and at 
the same time he was to admonish other dissentient nuns (named) 

• Dugdale, Mon. ni, p. ^ 15. For another instance of disturbances in a 
convent caused by the appointment of a Prioress (here the head of the 
house) by the Bishop contrary to the will of the nuns, see two letters written 
by the nuns of Stratford to Cromwell, about the same time that Longland 
was having such trouble at Elstow. In one they ask his help " for the re- 
moving of our supposed prioress," explaining " Sir, since the time that we 
put up our supplication unto the king, we have been worse entreated than 
ever we were before, for meat, drink and threatening words; and as soon 
as we speak to have anything remedied she biddeth us to go to Cromwell 
and let him help us; and that the old lady, who is prioress in right, is like 
to die for lack of sustenance and good keeping, for she can get neither meat, 
drink nor money to help herself." In another letter they report "that the 
chancellor of my lord of London (the Bishop) hath been with us yesterday 
and that he sayeth the prioress shall continue and be prioress still, in spite 
of our teeth, and of their teeths that say nay to it, and that he commanded 
her to assault us and to punish us, that other may beware by us." Wood, 
Letters of Royals and Illustrious Ladies, i, nos. xxx and xxxi, pp. 68-70. 


that they and all others must accept Joan de Pykering as prioress and 
reverently obey her. 

It is clear in this case that the feuds of the convent had spread 
beyond its walls, for the Archbishop at the same time warned 
all lay folk to cease their opposition on pain of excommunication 
and shortly afterwards imposed a penance upon one of those 
who had interfered. But pandemonium still reigned at Keld- 
holme and he went down in person to interview the refractory 
nuns; the result of his visitation appears in a mandate issued 
to the official of Cleveland on September 3rd, stating that he 
had found four nuns, Isabella de Langetoft, Mary de Holm, Joan 
de Roseles and AnabiUa de Lokton (all had been among the 
original objectors to Emma of York) incorrigible rebels. They 
were therefore to be packed off one after another, Isabella to 
Handale, Mary to Swine, Joan to Nunappleton and AnabiUa 
to Walhngwells, there to perform their penances. In spite of 
this ruthless elimination of the discordant elements, the convent 
of Keldholme refused to submit. On February ist following the 
Archbishop wrote severely to the subprioress and convent bidding 
them at once to direct a letter under their common seal to their 
patroness, declaring that they had unanimously elected Joan 
de Pykering as prioress; on February 5th he issued a commission 
to correct the crimes and excesses revealed at his visitation; and 
on February 17th he directed the commissioners "to enquire 
whether Joan de Pickering" (luckless exile in the tents of Kedar) 
" desired for a good reason, of her own free will, to resign and 
if they found that she did to enjoin the subprioress and convent 
to proceed to the canonical election of a new prioress"; and on 
March 7th the triumphant convent elected Emma of Stapelton. 
At the same time the Archbishop ordered the transference of 
two other nuns to do penance at Esholt and at Nunkeeling, 
perhaps for their share in these disorders but more probably 
for immorality. 

But this was not the end. Emma of York could not forget 
that she had once been prioress ; Mary de Holm (who had either 
returned from or never gone to Swine) was a thoroughly bad 
character; and in 13 15 the Archbishop 

directed Richard del Clay, custos of the monastery, to proceed at once 
to Keldholme and to summon before him in the chapter Emma of 


York and Mary de Holm, who like daughters of perdition were dis- 
obedientand rebels against the Prioress. Havingread the Archbishop's 
letter in the mother tongue in the chapter, he was to admonish the 
two nuns for the first, second and third times that they must humbly 
obey the Prioress in all lawful and canonical injunctions. They were 
not to meddle with any internal or external business of the house in 
any way, or to go outside of the enclosure of the monastery, or to 
say anything against the Prioress, on pain of expulsion and of the 
greater excommunication. 

At the end of the year, however, harassed Archbishop Green- 
field went where the wicked cease from troubUng; and the two 
malcontents at Keldholme seized the opportunity to triumph. 
Scarcely a couple of months after his death Emma of Stapelton 
resigned; she said she was "oppressed by age," but since Emma 
of York was at opce elected and confirmed in her place, it is 
probable that the rage, like Joan de Pickering's free will, was 
something of a euphemism ; her reason doubtless took a concrete 
and menacing shape and wore a veil upon its undiminished head. 
The last we hear of these very unsaintly ladies is in 1318, when 
the new Archbishop enjoined a penance on Mary de Holm for 
incontinence with a chaplain^. It is noticeable that this was 
the second case of the kind which had occurred in the diocese 
of York within fifteen years. At Swine in 1290 the appoint- 
ment by Archbishop Romeyn of Josiana de Anlaby as Prioress 
had been followed by similar disorders and he ordered an 
inquiry to be held and the rebellious nuns to be sent to 

Much trouble might arise within a convent over the election 
of its head, as these stories show. But sometimes external persons 
interfered; great ladies used their influence and their wealth to 

1 V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, pp. 167-9. 

^ lb. Ill, p. 180 and Reg. of John le Romeyn (Surtees Soc), i, pp. 213-4. 
Whether any nuns were sent to Rosedale does not appear, but shortly 
afterwards two nuns, Elizabeth de Rue and Helewis Darains, were sent to 
Nunburnholme and to Wykeham respectively; these punishments may not 
have been connected with the election trouble. Reg. Romeyn, i, pp. 177, 
214 note, 225; compare p. 216. Josiana appears to have been twice Prioress; 
she was confirmed in 1290 and iinally resigned because of old age in 1320, 
but Joan de Moubray is mentioned as Prioress in 1308 and she resigned in 
1309. V.C.H. Yoyks. in, p. 181. There was discord over an election at 
St Clement's, York, in 1316, one party in the convent electing Agnes de 
Methelay, and the other Beatrice de Brandesby. Sede vacante, the Dean 
and Chapter appointed the former, V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 129. See also a 
case at Goring. V.C.H. Oxon. 11, p. 103. 


secure the coveted post for a protegee of their own; and the 
protegee herself was not averse to oihng the palms of those in 
authority with good marks of silver; "blood-abbesses," Ensfrid 
of Cologne would have called them ("that is, foisted in by their 
kinsfolk") or "jester-abbesses" ("that is, such as had been 
thrust in by the power of great folks") or "simoniacs, who had 
crept in through money or through worldly services "i. In these 
cases there was likely to be more trouble still, for great ladies 
were not always careful of the character of a friend or relative 
whom they wished to settle comfortably as head of a convent. In 
1528 the Abbess of Wilton died and Mr John Carey thought he 
would like the appointment for his sister Eleanor, one of the 
nuns. He was brother-in-law to lovely Anne Boleyn, and a word 
in her ear secured her warm support ; the infatuated King wished 
to please Anne; and Wolsey, steering his bark in troubled waters, 
wished to please the King; so he promised that the lady should 
have the post, the election to which had been placed in his hands 
by the nuns. It seemed that all would go well with Dame 
Eleanor Carey, when Anne Boleyn pulled the strings; but trouble 
arose, and the action taken by the Cardinal and by the future 
oppressor of the monasteries is greatly to the credit of them both, 
for both had much to lose from Anne. "As touching the matter 
of Wilton " Henry wrote to her 

My lord cardinal hath had the Nuns before him, and examined them, 
Mr. Bell being present; which hath certified me, that for a truth that 
she hath confessed herself, (which we would have had abbesse) to have 
had two children by two sundry priests; and furder, since, hath been 
kept by a servant of the Lord Broke, that was, and that not long ago; 
wherefore I would not for all the gold in the world clog your con- 
science nor mine to make her a ruler of a house, which is of so ungudly 
demeanor, nor I trust you would not that neither for brother nor 
sister I should so destain mine honor or conscience. And as touching 
the prioress [Isabel Jordan] or Dame Eleanor's eldest sister, though 
there is not any evident case proved against them, and that the prioress 
is so old that of many years she could not be as she was named [ill- 
famed] : yet notwithstanding to do you pleasure I have done that 
neither of them shall have it, but that some other good and well 
disposed woman shall have it, whereby the house shall be the better 
reformed (whereof I ensure you it had much need) and God much the 
better served^. 

^ Translated fromXaesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus Miraculorum in 
Coulton, A Medieval Garner, pp. 251-2. 2 Dugdale, Mon. 11, p. 318. 


Wolsey, however, gave the appointment to Isabel Jordan, who 
in spite of her having been the subject of some scandal in her 
youth, was favoured by the greater part of the convent as being 
"ancient, wise and discreet"; whereupon he brought down upon 
himself a severe rebuke from Henry, who had "both reported 
and promised to divers friends of Dame Ehnor Carey that the 
Prioress should not have it"i Without doubt pretty Mistress 
Anne was sulking down at Hever. 

Not only did outside persons thus concern themselves in a 
conventual election; the nuns themselves were not always un- 
willing to bribe, where they desired advancement. A series of 
letters written by Margaret Vernon to Cromwell, concerning the 
office of Prioress of St Helen's, Bishopsgate, throws a lurid light 
upon the methods which were sometimes employed: 

"Sir," she wrote to her powerful friend in 1529, "Pleaseth it you to 
understand that there is a goldsmith in this town, named Lewys, and 
he sheweth me that Mr. More hath made sure promise to parson Larke 
that the subprioress of St. Helen's shall be prioress there afore Christ- 
mas-day. Sir, I most humbly beseech you to be so good master unto me, 
as to know my lord's grace's [the king's] pleasure in this case and that 
I may have a determined answer whereto I shall trust, that I may 
settle myself in quietness ; the which I am far from at this hour. And 
farthermore if it might like you to make the offer to my said lord's 
grace of such a sum of money as we were at a point for, my friends 
thinketh that I should surely be at an end." 

Soon afterwards she wrote again: 

Sir, it is so that there is divers and many of my friends that hath 
written to me that I should make labour for the said house unto your 
mastership, showing you that the King's grace hath given it to master 
Harper, who saith that he is proffered for his favour two hundred 
marks of the King's saddler, for his sister; which proffer I will never 
make unto him, nor no friend for me shall, for the coming in after 
that fashion is neither godly nor worshipful. And beside all this I 
must come by my lady Orell's favour, which is a woman I would least 
meddle with. And thus I shall not only be burdened in conscience 
for pa.ym.ent of this great sum, but also entangled and in great cum- 
brance to satisfy the avidity of this gentlewoman. And though I did, 
in my lord cardinal's days, proffer a hundred pounds for the said 
house, I beseech you consider for what purpose it was made. Your 
mastership knoweth right well that there was by my enemies so many 
high and slanderous words, and your mastership had made so great 
instant labour for me, that I shamed so much the fall thereof that 

1 See Brewer, Reign 0} Henry VIII, 11, pp. 281-3. 


I foresaw little what proffer was made ; but now, I thank our Lor 
that blast is ceased, and I have no such singular love unto it ; for no 
I have two eyes to see in this matter clearly, the one is the eye of n 
soul, that I may come without burthen of conscience and by tl 
right door, and, laying away all pomp and vanity of the world, lookii 
warily upon the maintenance and supportation of the house, whi( 
I should take in charge, and cannot be performed, master Harpei 
pleasure and my lady Orell's accomplished. In consideration where 
I intend not willingly, nor no friend of mine shall not, trouble yoi 
mastership in this case. 

In another letter she mentions a saying of Master Harper, th; 
from the good report he has heard of her, he would rather adm 
her without a groat than others who offer money; but her coi 
scientious scruples were not rewarded with St Helen's, thoug 
she almost immediately obtained an appointment as prioress < 
Little Marlow, and on the dissolution of that house among tl 
lesser monasteries, received and held for a brief space the gre; 
Abbey of Mailing^. It is true that these instances of simony ar 
of the use of influence belong to the last degenerate years of tl 
monasteries in England. But cases hardly less serious ui 
doubtedly occurred at an early date. The gross venality of tl 
papal curia"^, even in the early thirteenth century, is not a vei 
happy omen for the behaviour of private patrons; smaller fo^ 
than the Pope could summon a wretched abbot "Amice, i 
offeras"; nor was it only abbots who thus bought themselv 
into favour. The thirteenth century jurist Pierre Du Bois, who; 
enhghtened plans for the better education of women include 
the suppression of the nunneries and the utilisation of the 
wealth to form schools or colleges for girls, mentioned the r 
ception of nuns for money and rents, by means of compac 
(i.e. the dowry system) and the election of abbesses and prioress 
by the same illicit bargains, as among the abuses practised 

' See Wood, op. cit. ii, nos. xxi, xxii, pp. 52-6. (See nos. xxiii, xxi 
XXV, Ix.xiii and Ixxiv for further letters from ilargaret Vernon.) 

^ Sec, for example, the account in the St Albans Chronicles (Rolls Serif 
of the great costs incurred by the Abbots of St Albans in seeking confirmati( 
here. A detailed account of expenses incurred at Rome for the confirmati( 
of Abbot John IV in 1302 has been translated in Coulton, Medieval Garm 
p. sry; the total was 2561 marks sterling, i.e. about £'34,000 in mode 
money. See also Froude's essay entitled "Annals of an English Abbej 
in his Short Studies on Great Subjects, 3rd ser. pp. r sqq. 

' Pierre Du Bois, De Recuperatione Terre Sancte, ed. Ch.-V. Langh 
(Paris, 1891), p. 83. 



Once having been installed, the head of a house held office 
until she died, resigned or was deprived for incompetence or 
for ill behaviour. Sometimes prioresses continued to hold office 
until a very great age, as did Matilda de Flamstead, Prioress 
of Sopwell, who died in 1430 aged eighty-one, having hved in 
the rules of religion for over sixty years^. But the cases (quoted 
below) of the prioresses of St Michael's Stamford and of Grace- 
dieu prove that an aged and impotent head was bad for the 
discipline of the house, and it appears that a prioress who was too 
old or in too weak health to fulfil her arduous duties, was often 
allowed to resign or was reheved of her office-. Sometimes an 
ex-superior continued to hve a communal life as an ordinary 
nun, under her successor, but sometimes she was granted a 
special room and a special allowance of food and attendance. 
In some houses certain apartments were reserved for the occupa- 
tion of a retired superior. Sir Thomas Willoughby, writing to 
Cromwell on behalf of his sister-in-law, who had resigned her 
office as Abbess of Mailing, begs that she may 

have your letter to my lady abbess of Mailing (her successor), that 
she at your contemplation will be so good to her as to appoint her 
that room and lodging within the said monastei-y that she and other 
of her predecessors that hath likewise resigned hath used to have, 
and as she had herself a httle space, or else some other meet and con- 
venient lodging in the same house^. 

When Katherine Pilly, Prioress of FUxton, "who had laudably 
ruled the house for eighteen years," resigned in 1432 because 
of old age and blindness, the Bishop of Norwich made special 
arrangements for her sustenance : 

she was to have suitable rooms for herself and her maid; each week 
she and the maid were to be provided with two white loaves, eight 
loaves of " hool " bread and eight gallons of convent beer, with a daily 
dish for both from the kitchen, the same as for two nuns in the re- 
fectory, and with two hundred faggots and a hundred logs and eight 
pounds of candles a year. Cecilia Crayke, one of the nuns, was to 

1 Dugdale, Mon. ni, p. 363. 

2 At the time of the suppression Joan Scott "late prioress" is placed 
second in the list of nuns at Handale and is described as " aet. 90 and blyud." 
V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 166. At Esholt the e.x-prioress was over 70 and is 
described as "decrepita et non abilis ad equitandum, neque eundum." 
lb. p. 162. 

^ Wood, op. cit. II, p. 153. See A. H. Thompson, English Monasteries, 
p. 123. 


read divine service to her daily and to sit with her at meals, having 
her portion from the refectory^. 

These aged ladies probably ended their days peacefully, with- 
drawn from the common life of the house. But sometimes a 
prioress resigned while still young enough to miss her erstwhile 
autocracy and to torment her unlucky successor. Then indeed 
the new head could do nothing right and feuds and factions tore 
the sisterhood. Such a case occurred at Nunkeehng early in the 
fourteenth century. Avice de la More resigned in 1316, and the 
Archbishop wrote to the nuns making the usual provision for 
her; she had "for a long period laudably and usefully super- 
intended the house"; she was to have a' chamber to herself and 
one of the nuns assigned to her by the Prioress as a companion ; 
and daily she was to receive the portion of two nuns in bread, 
ale and victuals and her associate that of one nun ; an end, one 
might suppose, of Avice de la More. But the Yorkshire nuns 
were quarrelsome ladies; and two years later the Archbishop 
addressed a severe letter to Avice, threatening to remove the 
provision made for her if she persisted in her "conspiracies, 
rebelhons and disobedience to the prioress" and imposing a 
severe penance upon her. But seven penitential psalms with 
the htany upon Fridays, a disciphne in chapter and fasting diet 
could not calm the temper of Avice de la More; she stirred up 
the nuns to rebellion and spread the tale of her grievances "to 
seculars and adversaries outside. " There was some family feud 
perhaps between her relatives and the St Ouintins to whose 
house the unhappy Prioress belonged; at any rate "clamorous 

^ V.C.H. Suffolk, II, p. 116. See also the provision made for Joyce Brome, 
ex-prioress of Wroxall. Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 89 note. For the case of Isabel 
Spynys, prioress of Wilberfoss {1348), see V.C.H. Yorks. iii, p. 126; and for 
an example of such an arrangement at a priory of monks see the very detailed 
ordinance for the living of John Assheby, ex-prior of Daventry, by Bishop 
Flemyng of Lincoln in 1420. Line. Visit, i, pp. 39-42. It was not unusual 
to make provision in the form of corrodies such as these for other nuns, who 
were prevented by age and infirmity from taking part in the communal life 
of the convent. Isabel Warde of Moxby, "impotens et surda," held such 
a grant for life at the time of the dissolution (V.C.H. Yorks. iii', p. 239) and 
Margaret de Shyrburn of Yedingham, who was ill of dropsy, had a secular 
girl to wait on her in 1314. lb. p. 127 note. Compare the amusing case of 
Joan Heyronne of St Helen's, Bishopsgate (1385), who was iU of gout and 
not sympathised with by her sisters (V.C.H. London, i, p. 458), and see also 
cases at Romsey (1507), Liveing, op. cit. p. 230; Mailing (1400),' Cal of Pap 
Letters, v, p. 355; and St Mary's, Xeasham, V.C.H. Durham 11 p 107 


information" reached the Archbishop concerning the intrigues 
of certain of the nuns. Once more he wrote to Avice "with a 
bitter heart." She had broken her vow of obedience in arrogancy 
and elation of heart towards her prioress, "who was placed in 
charge of her soul and body and without whom she had no free 
will"; let her desist at once and study to live according to the 
rule; and a commission was sent to inquire into the misdeeds 
of the rebelHous nuns of Keeling. But alas, the finding of that 
commission has long since powdered into dust and we hear no 
further news of Avice de la More^. 

The head of a house was an important person and enjoyed 
a considerable amount of freedom, in relation both to her convent 
and to the outside world. In relation to her convent her position 
laid her open to various temptations: she was, for instance, 
beset by three which must be faced by all who rule over com- 
munities. The first was the temptation to live with too great 
luxury and independence, escaping from the daily routine of 
communal hfe, to which her vows bound her. The second was 
the temptation to rule hke an autocrat, instead of consulting 
her sisters. The third was the temptation to let human predilec- 
tions have their way and to show favouritism. To begin with 
the first of these temptations, it is obvious that the fact that 
the superior nearly always had a separate room, or suite of 
rooms^, and servants, and had the duty of entertaining important 

' V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, pp. 120-1. Compare an amusing and very similar 
disturbance at Flixton between 1514 and 1532. Visit, of Dioc. Norwich, 
ed. Jessopp (Camden Soc), pp. 142-4, 185, 190, 261, 318. 

^ The abbess's or prioress's chamber is constantly mentioned in the 
surveys of nunneries made at the time of the Dissolution, e.g. at Arthington, 
Wykeham, Basedale and Kirklees {Yorks. Arohaeol. Journ. ix, pp. 212. 326, 
327, 332) ; at Cheshunt (Cussans, Hist, of Herts, Hertford Hundred, 11, p. 270), 
Sheppey (Mackenzie E. C. Walcott, Inventories of St Mary's Hospital, 
Dover, etc. p. 28), Kilbum (Dugdale, Mon. iii, p. 424). See also the inventory 
of the goods of Langley in 1485 (Walcott, Inventory of St Mary's Benedictine 
Nunnery at Langley [Leic. Architec. Soc. 1872], p. 4). The last three contain 
interesting inventories of the furniture of the prioress's chamber. At 
Sheppey it was hung with green "saye" and contained "a trussyng bed of 
waynscot with testar, sylar and cortens of red and yelow sarcenet"; at 
Kilbum it was hung with " four peces of sey redde and grene, with a bordure 
of story," and contained "a standinge bedd with four posts of weynscott, 
a trundle bedd under the same... a syller of yelowe and redde bokerame and 
three curteyns of the same work." At Langley also there were two beds in 
the prioress's chamber " hur owne bed " and "ye secunde bed in hur cham- 
bur." Clearly the prioress nearly always had a nun to sleep with her, and 
the evidence of visitations bears this out; see e.g. cases at Redlingfield, 


guests, gave her much freedom within her house, especially i: 
she were the head of one of the great abbeys. The Abbess o 
St Mary's Winchester, at the Dissolution, had her own hous( 
and a staff consisting of a cook, an undercook, a woman servan' 
and a laundress, and she had also a gentlewonjan to wait upoi 
her, hke any great lady in the worldV The Abbess of Barking 
had her gentlewoman, too, and her private kitchen; she dinec 
in state with her nuns five times a year, and " the under celeressi 
must remember," says the Charthe longynge to the Office of Celer 

at eche principall fest, that my lady sytteth in the fraytour ; that i 
to wyt five times in the yere, at eche tyme schall aske the clerke o 
the kychyn soper eggs for the covent, and that is Estir, Wytsontyd 
the Assumption of our Lady, seynt Alburgh and Cristynmasse, a 
eche tjTiie to every lady two eggs, and eche double two egges, that i 
the priorisse, the celeresse and the kychener-. 

The stern reformer Peckham was forced to take in hand th 
conduct of the Abbesses of Barking, Wherwell and Romsey, wb 
were abusing their independence of ordinary routine. The Abbes 
of Barking was forbidden to remain in her private room afte 
sunset, at which hour all doors were to be locked and all stranger 
excluded; she might do so only very rarely, in order to entertai 
distinguished guests or to transact important business; and h 
ordered her to eat with the convent as often as possible, " especiaU 
on solemn days" (i.e. great feasts)^- The Abbess of Wherwe 
had apparently stinted her nuns in food and drink, but cause 
magnificent feasts to be prepared for her in her own room, an 
Peckham ordered that whenever there was a shortage of foo 
in the convent, she was to dine with the nuns, and no meal we 
to be laid in her chamber for servants or strangers, but a 
visitors were to be entertained in the exterior guest-hall; if i 
such times she were in ill health, and unable to use the commo 
diet, she might remain in her room, in the company of one ( 
two of the nuns. At times when there was no lack of food i 

1427 (V.C.H. Suffolk, II, p. 83), Littlemore, 1445 (Line. Visit. 11, p. 21 
"iacet de nocte in eodem lecto cum priorissa"), Flamstead, 1530 [V.C.l 
Herts. IV, p. 433). For the position of the prioress's chamber see plan of tl 
nunnery buildings of St Radegund's, Cambridge (now Jesus College) (Gra 
Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge, p. 53). 

1 Dugdale, Mon. 11, p. 458. 

2 Jb. I, pp. 443, 445. 

' Reg. Epis. Johannis Pechham (Rolls Series), i, p. 84. 


the convent and when she was entertaining guests in her own 
room, all potations were to cease and all servants and visitors 
to depart at the hour of compHnei. About the same time (1284) 
Peckham wrote two letters to the Abbess of Romsey, who had 
evidently been guilty of the same behaviour. She was not to 
keep "a number of" dogs or monkeys, or more than two maid 
servants, and she was not to fare splendidly in her own rooms 
while the nuns went short; his injunctions to her are couched 
in almost precisely the same language as those which he addressed 
to the Abbess of Wherwell^. 

According to the Benedictine rule the superior, when not 
entertaining guests, was permitted to invite the nuns in turn 
to dine with her in her own room, for their recreation, and notices 
of this custom sometimes occur in visitation reports; at Thicket 
(1309) the Prioress was enjoined to have them one by one when 
she dined in her room'; at Elstow (1421-2) the Abbess was to 
invite those nuns whom she knew to be specially in need of 
refreshment*; at Gracedieu (1440-1) the Prioress was ordered 

that ye do the fraytour be keppede daylye...itein that no mo of your 
susters entende up on yowe, save onely your chapeleyn, and other- 
wliile, as your rule wylle, ye calle to your refeccyone oon or two of 
your susters to thair recreacyone^ ; 

at Greenfield (1519) there was a complaint that the Prioress did 
not invite the nuns to her table in due order, and at Stainfield 
it was said that she frequently invited three young nuns to her 
table and showed partiality to them and she was ordered to 
invite aU the senior sisters in order*. In Cistercian and Cluniac 
houses the superior was supposed to dine in the frater and to 
sleep in the dorter with the other nuns, and even in Benedictine 
houses it was considered desirable that she should do so. But 
the temptation to live a more private life was irresistible, and 
visitation records contain many complaints that the head of the 
house is lax in her attendance at dorter and frater and even in 

^ Reg. Epis. Johannis Peckham, 11, pp. 651-2. 

* lb. II, pp. 659-60, 662-3. For another instance of a prioress faring 
better than her nuns, see Archbishop Lee's injunctions to Nunappleton 
in 1534: "That their be no difference betwene the breade and ale prepared 
for the prioresse and the bredde and ale provided for the covent, but that 
she and they eatt of oon breade, and drinke of oon drinke and of oon ale" 
Yorks. Archaeol. Journ. xvi. pp. 443-4. 

' V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 214. •■ Line. Visit. 1, p. 50. 

* lb. II, p. 124. ' V.C.H. Lines. 11, pp. 155, 131-^. 


following the divine services in the choiri. Bishops frequently 
made injunctions like that given by Alnwick to the Prioress of 
Ankerwyke in 1441 : 

that nyghtly ye lygge in the dormytorye to ouersee your susters how 
thai are there gouernede after j^our revvle, and that often tyme ye 
come to matynes, messe and other houres...also that oftentymes ye 
come to the chapitere for to correcte the def antes of your susters... 
also that aftere your rewle ye kepe the fraj^tour but if resonable cause 
excuse yowe there fro^. 

Sometimes a minimum number of attendances was demanded. 
At St Michael's Stamford Alnwick ordered the old Prioress 

that nyghtly ye lyg in the dormytorye emong your susters and that 
euery principale double fest and testes of xij or ix lessouns ye be at 
matynes, but if grete sekenes lette yowe; and that often tymes ye 
be at other howres and messes in the qwere, and also that ye be 
present in chapitres helpyng the supprioresse in correctyng and 
punisshyng of defautes^ 

It was further attempted to restrict the dangerous freedom 
of a superior's life, by ordering her always to have with her one 
of the nuns as a companion and as witness to her behaviour. 
So Peckham ordered the Abbess of Romsey to " elect a suitable 
companion for herself and to change her companions yearly, to 
the end that her honesty should be attested by many witnesses * ' . 
Usually the nun whose duty it was to accompany the superior 
acted as her chaplain. It wiU be remembered that Chaucer says 
of his Prioress "another Nonne with hir hadde she. That was 

1 Sometimes, however, bishops licenced the head of a house to hear the 
service separately, e.g. in 1401 Wykeham licenced dame Lucy Everard, 
abbess of Romsey, to hear divine service in her oratory during one year, 
in the presence of one of her sisters and of her servants [familia). Wykeham' s 
Reg. (Hants. Rec. Soc), 11, p. 538. Cf. similar licence to the prioress of 
Polsloe in 1388. Reg. of Bishop Brantyngham of Exeter, pt. II, p. 675. 

2 Line. Visit. 11, p. 8. The same injunction was sent to Stixwould. 
Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 75^. 

^ lb. t. &id. The next year when Alnwick came again this prioress 
announced that she did not lie in the dorter, nor keep frater, cloister and 
church on account of bodily weakness ; she alleged that he had dispensed her 
from these observances, which he denied. lb. f. 39^. Compare injunctions 
to Godstow, Gracedieu and Langley, Line. Visit. 11, pp. 115, 125, 177. For 
other injunctions on these points, see Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 78 (Nuncoton, 
1440); V.C.H. Yorks. in, pp. 119 (Nunbumholme, 1318), 120 (Nunkeeling' 
1314), 124 (Thicket, 1309), 188 (Arthington, 1318), 239 (Moxby, 1318). 

* Reg. Epis. Johannis Peckham (Rolls Series), 11, p. 662. Compare 
V.C.H. Yorks. in, pp. 113, 239 and Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 6. 


hir chapeleyne"!, and episcopal registers contain frequent allu- 
sions to the office. William of Wykeham gave a comprehensive 
account of its purpose when he wrote to the Abbess of Romsey 
in 1387, 

since, according to the constitutions of the holy fathers, younger 
members must take a pattern from their rulers (prelati) and those 
prelates ought to have a number of witnesses to their own behaviour, 
we strictly order you (lady abbess) in virtue of obedience, that you 
annually commit the office of chaplain to one of your nuns... and thus 
the nuns themselves, who shall have been with you in the aforesaid 
office, shall (by means of laudable instruction) be the better enabled 
to excel in religion, while you will be able immediately to invoke their 
testimony to your innocence, if (which God forbid) any crime or 
scandal should be imputed to you by the malice of any person^. 

So at Easebourne in 1478 the Prioress was ordered 

that every week, beginning with the eldest... she should select for 
herself in due course and in turns, one of her nuns as chaplain for 
divine services and to wait upon herself 2. 

The Norwich visitations of Bishop Nykke afford further informa- 
tion; at Flixton discontented Dame Margaret Punder complained 
that the Prioress had no sister as chaplain, but slept alone as 
she pleased, in a chamber [cubiculo) outside the dorter, "without 
the continual testimony of her sisters," and the visitors enjoined 

' Before it was realised that this office was often held by a woman in 
nunneries, scholars were much exercised to explain this passage in Chaucer's 
Prologue, though a search through Dugdale would have provided them with 
several instances. The office is still held in modern convents, and Dr Fumi- 
vall printed an interesting letter from a Benedictine nun, describing the 
duties attached to it. "It is in fact the nun who has special charge of 
attending on the Abbess and giving assistance when she needs it, either 
in writing when she fthe Abbess) is busy, or in attending when sick, etc., 
but that which comes most often to claim her services is, on the twelve or 
fourteen great festivals," when the chaplain attends the Abbess in the choir 
and holds her crosier, while she reads the hymns, lesson, etc. Anglia, IV, 
pp. 238-9. In the middle ages the chief stress was laid on the constant pre- 
sence of a witness to the superior's mode of life, that it might be beyond 
suspicion. Miss Eckenstein has pointed out that in the allegory of the 
"Ghostly Abbey," by the beguine Mechthild of Magdeburg, in which the 
nuns are personified Virtues, Charity is Abbess and Meekness her Chaplain; 
and in the English version of the poem printed by Wynkyn de Worde (1500), 
Charity was Abbess and Mercy and Truth were to be her "chapeleyns" and 
to go about with her wherever she went. The Prioress (Wisdom) and the 
Sub-Prioress (Meekness) were also to have chaplains (Righteousness and 
Peace) because they were "most of worship." Eckenstein, Woman under 
Monasticism, pp. 339, 377. 

2 New College MS., f. 88i 

' Sussex Archaeol. Coll. ix, p. 15. 


that henceforth she should have with her one sister in the office 
of chaplain for a witness, and especially when she slept outside 
the dorter^. At Blackborough one of the nuns complained that 
the Prioress had kept the same chaplain for three years ^ and at 
Redlingfield it was said that she never changed her chaplain^; 
the Abbess of Elstow in 1421-2* and the Prioress of Markyate 
in 1442 ' were ordered to change their chaplains every year, and 
this seems to have been the customary arrangement. The title 
of "chaplain" is sometimes found after the name of a nun in 
lists of the inmates of nunneries*. 

Besides the temptation to live too independent an existence 
the head of a house had also the temptation to abuse the con- 
siderable power given to her by the monastic rule. She was apt 
to govern autocratically, keeping the business of the house en- 
tirely in her own hands, instead of consulting her sisters (assem- 
bled in chapter) before making any important decision. There 
were constant complaints by the nuns that the Prioress kept 
the common seal in her own custody and performed aU business 
without consulting them. Peckham's letter to the Abbess of 
Romsey illustrates the variety of matters which might thus be 
settled without any reference to the nuns; she had evidently 
been misusing her power, for he wrote sternly : 

Know that thou art not mistress of the common goods, but rather 
the dispenser and mother of thy community, according to the meaning 
of the word abbess.... We strictly command thee that thou study to 
transact all the more important business of the house with the con- 
vent. And by the more important business we intend those things 
which may entail notable expenditure in temporalities or in spiritual- 
ities, with which we wish to be included the provision of a steward ; 
we order for the peace of the community, that H. de Chalfhunte, whom 
thou hast for long kept in the office of steward contrary to the will 

' Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich (Camden Soc), p. 190. 

2 Ih. p. 108. 3 /(, p 138. 

* Line. Visit. 1, p. 50. For other references to the abbess's nun-chaplain 
at Elstow, see Archaeologia, xlvii, p. 52 and Dugdale, Mon. in, p. 415. 

^ Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 6. The Prioress was Denise Loweliche (see p. 458 
below) and at the visitation Dame Margaret Loweliche "cappellana priorisse" 
(evidently a relative) said that she had held the office for the last eight years. 
Another nun said "that the Prioress ever holds and has held for seven 
years, one and the same nun as chaplain, without ever replacing her by 
another, and when she goes out she always has this young nun with her." 

" E.g. at Campsey (1532) and Redhngfield (1526 and 1532). Visit, of 
Dioc. of Norwich, pp. 224, 291, 297. At Elstow (1539). Dugdale, Mon. Ill, 
p. 415. At Barking (still in receipt of pension in 1553). lb. i, p, 438 note. 


of the convent, no longer intermeddle in any way with this or with 
any other baihff's office (bajulatu) of the monastery. Moreover we 
make the same order concerning John le Frikiere. Let each of them, 
having accounted for his office before Master Philip our official... look 
out for an abode elsewhere. Besides this thou shalt transact all minor 
business of the church according to the rule with at least twelve of 
the senior ladies. And because thou hast been wont to do much 
according to the prompting of thine own will, we adjoin to thee three 
coadjutresses of laudable testimony, to wit dames Margery de Ver- 
dun, PhiUppa de Stokes and Johanna de Revedoune, without whose 
counsel and attempt thou shalt not dare attempt anything pertaining 
to the rule of the convent in temporalities or in spiritualities. And 
whensoever thou shalt wittingly do the contrary in any important 
matter, thou shalt know thyself to be on that account suspended from 
the office of administration. And we mean by an important matter 
the provision of baiUfis of the manors and internal obedientiaries, 
the punishment of deUnquents, all aUenation of goods in gifts or 
presents, or in any other ways, the sending forth of nuns and the 
assignment of companions to those going forth, the beginning of 
lawsuits and all manner of church business. And if it befall that any 
of the aforesaid three be ill or absent, do thou receive in her stead 
Dame Leticia de Montegomery or Dame Agnes de Lidyerd, having 
called into consultation the others according to the number fixed 
above. And whenever thou shalt happen to fare forth upon the 
business of the church, thou shalt always take with thee the aforesaid 
three ladies, whom we have joined with thee as coadjutresses in the 
rule of the monastery both within and without ; and if ever thou goest 
forth for recreation thou shalt always have with thee two; in such 
wise that thou shalt in no manner concern thyself to pursue any- 
business without the three'. 

The danger of autocratic government to the convent is ob- 
vious; and it is significant that a really bad prioress is nearly 
always charged with having failed to communicate with her 
sisters in matters of business, turning all the revenues to any 
use that she pleased. Moreover the head of a house not only 
sometimes failed to consult her convent; she constantly also 
omitted to render an annual account of her expenditure, and by 
far the most common complaint at visitations was the complaint 
that the Prioress non reddidit compotum. At Bishop Nykke's 
Norwich visitations the charge was made against the heads of 
Flixton, Crabhouse, Blackborough and Redlingfield^. At Bishop 

1 Litt. Johannis Peckham (Rolls Series), 11, pp. 658-9. Compare 
injunctions to the Abbess of Chatteris in 1345. Dugdale, Mon. 11, p. 619. 

2 Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich (Camden Soc), pp. 108, 109, 138-9, 143, 
185, 190-1. 


Alnwick's Lincoln visitations it was made against the heads of 
Ankerwyke, Catesby, Gracedieu, Harrold, Heynings, St Michael's 
Stamford, Stixwould, Studley; at Ankerwyke Dame Clemence 
Medforde had not accounted since her arrival at the house; at 
St Michael's Stamford the Prioress had held office for twelve years 
and had never done so ; at Studley it was said that the last Prioress 
who ruled for 58 years never once rendered an account during 
the whole of that period, nor had the present Prioress yet done 
so, though she had been in office for a year^ Sometimes the 
delinquent gave some excuse to the Bishop; the Prioress of 
Catesby said she had no clerk to write the account^; at Black- 
borough one of the nuns said that her object had been to avoid 
the expense of an auditor and another that she gave the convent a 
verbal report of the state of the house^. Sometimes she flatly 
refused, and the bishop's repeated injunctions on the subject 
seem to have been of httle avail; the Prioress of Fhxton had 
not rendered account since her installation et dicit quod non vuU 
redder e ; she was superseded, but six years later the same complaint 
was made against her successor and the visitors ordered the 
latter to amend her ways, suh poena privationis, quia dixit se 
nolle ialem redder e compoium* The bishops always inquired very 
carefully into the administration of the conventual income and 
possessions by the head of each house, and invented a variety 
of devices for controlling her actions^. 

There remains to be considered the third pitfall into which 
the head of a house was hable to fall. The wise Benedictine rule 
contained a special warning against favouritism, for indeed human 
nature cannot avoid preferences and it is the hardest task of a 
ruler to subdue personal predilections to perfect fairness. The 
charge of favouritism is a fairly common one in medieval visita- 
tions. Alnwick met with an amusing case when he visited 
Gracedieu in 1440-1. The elder nuns complained that the old 
prioress did not treat all equally; some of them she favoured 
and others she treated very rigorously; Dame Phihppa Jecke 
even said that corrections were made so harshly and so fussily 

'■ See Line. Visit. 11, pp. 3, 48, 120, 130, 133; and Alnwick' f Visit. MS. 
S. 83, 751^, 26d. 

^ Line. Visit. 11, p. 49. 

' Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich, p. 108. 

* lb. pp. 143. igi. s sgg below, p. 216 fit. 


that all charity and all happiness had gone from the house. 
Moreover there were two young nuns whom she called her 
disciples and who were always with her ; these nuns had many un- 
suitable conversations, so their sisters thought, with the Prioress' 
secular visitors; worse than this, they acted as spies upon the 
other nuns and told the Prioress about everything that was said 
and done in the convent, and then the Prioress scolded more 
severely than ever^; but her disciples could do no wrong. These 
nuns, indeed, were among the most voluble that Alnwick visited, 
and he must have remarked with a smile that the two disciples 
were the only ones who answered "Omnia bene"; but he did 
not intend to let them off without a rebuke. 

"Agnes Poutrelle and Isabel Jurdane" runs the note in his Register, 
''who style themselves the Prioress's disciples, are thereby the cause 
of quarrel between her and her sisters, forasmuch as what they hear 
and see among the nuns they straightway retail to the prioress. They 
both appeared, and, the article having been laid to their charge, 
expressly deny it and all things that are contained therein ; wherefore 
they cleared themselves without compurgators; howbeit, that they 
may not be held suspect hereafter touching these matters or offend 
herein, they both sware upon the holy gospels of God that henceforth 
they will discover to the prioress concerning their sisters nothing 
whereby cause of quarrel or incentive to hatred may be furnished 
among them, unless they be such matters as may tend to the damage 
of the prioress' body or honour "^. 

At two other houses there were complaints against the head ; 
at Legboume Dame Sibil Papelwyk said that the Prioress was 
not indifferent in making corrections, but treated some too hardly 
and others too favourably; and at Heynings Dame Alice Porter 
said that the Prioress was an accepter of persons in making 

for those whom she loves she passes over lightly, and those whom she 
holds not in favour she harshly punishes... and she encourages her 
secular serving-women, whom she believes more than her sisters, 

' Among '■ greuous defautes " enumerated in the " additions to the rules " 
of Syon Abbey (fifteenth century) is the following: "If any lye in a wayte, 
or in a spye, or els besyly and curyously serche what other sustres or 
brethren speke betwene themselfe, that they afterwardes may revele or 
schewe the saynge of the spekers to ther grate hurte"; others are, "if any 
sowe dyscorde amonge the sustres and brethren," and "if any be founde 
a preuy rowner or bakbyter." Aungier, Hist, and Antiquities of Syon Mon- 
astery, p. 257. 

2 Xj»c. Visit. II, pp. 121, 123. 



in their words, to scold the same her sisters, and for this cause quarrels 
do spring up between her and her sisters^. 

In neither of these cases, however, was the charge corroborated 
by the evidence of the other nuns. Probably the two malcontents 
considered themselves to have a grievance against their ruler; 
at Legbourne Dame Sibil's complaint that the Prioress would 
not let her visit a dying parent gives a clue to her annoyance. 
Another charge sometimes made was that the Prioress gave more 
credence to the young nuns than to those who were older and 
wiser^. Injunctions that the head of a house was to show no 
favouritism were often made by visitors. One of Alnwick's in- 
junctions may stand as representative : 

Also we charge yow, prioress, vnder payn of contempte and vndere 
the peynes writen here benethe, that in your correccions ye be sad, 
sowbre and indifferent, not cruelle to some and to some fauoryng 
agayn your rule, but that ye precede and treet your susters moderly, 
the qualytee and the quantitee of the persons and defautes wythe 
owten accepcyone of any persone euenly considerede and weyed 
(Legbourne)^. ' 

So far the position of a superior has been considered solely 
from the point of view of internal government, of her power over 
the convent and of the peculiar temptations by which she was 
assailed. But the head of a house was an important person, not 
only in her own community, but also in the circumscribed Uttle 
world without her gates; though here the degree of importance 
which she enjoyed naturally varied wdth the size and wealth of 
her house. In the middle ages fame and power were largely 
local matters ; roads were bad and news moved slowly and a man 
might hve no further away than the neighbouring town and be 
a foreigner. The countrj' gentry were not great travellers; occa- 
sionally they jaunted up to London, to court, or to parliament or 
to the law-courts; sometimes they followed the King and his 
lords to battles over sea or on the Scottish border; but for the 
most part they stayed at home and died in the bed wherein their 
mother bore them. The comfortable burgesses of the town travelled 

^ Line. Visit, ii, pp. 123, 185, 133. 

' See e.g. Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich (Camden Soc), pp. 143, 290. 

= Line. Visit. 11, p. 186. Compare ib. pp. 124, 135 (Gracedieu and Hey- 
nings); Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Gynewell, ff. 139-40 {Elstow, 1359); Line. 
Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, fi. 343 (Elstow, 1387), 397 (Heynings, 1392); 
V.C.H. Yorks, III, pp. 117 (Moxby, 1252), 164 (Hampole, 1314). 


still less; perhaps they betook themselves upon a pilgrimage, 
"clothed in a Uveree of a solempne and greet fraternitee," and 
bearing a cook with them, lest they should lack the "chiknes 
with the marybones," the " poudre-marchant tart," the "galin- 
gale," the "mortreux," the " blankmanger " of their luxurious 
daily life; but they seldom had the Wife of Bath's acquaintance 
with strange streams. And the lesser folk — peasants and artisans — 
looked across the chequered expanse of the common fields at a 
horizon, which was in truth a barrier, an impassable hne drawn 
round the edge of the world. The fact that life was Uved by the 
majority of men within such narrow limits gave a preeminent 
importance to the local magnate; and among the most local of 
local magnates (since a corporation never moved and never ex- 
pired and never relaxed the grip of its dead fingers) must be 
reckoned the heads of the monastic houses. Socially in all cases, 
and politically when their houses were large and rich, abbots and 
abbesses, priors and prioresses, ranked among the great folk of 
the country side. They enjoyed the same prestige as the lords 
of the neighbouring manors and some extra deference on account 
of their religion. It was natural that the Prioress of a nunnery 
should be "holden digne of reverence." The gentlemen whose 
estates adjoined her own sent their daughters to her as novices, 
or (if her house were poor and the Bishop not too strict) as school 
girls to receive their "nortelrye"; and they did not themselves 
scorn the discreet entertainment of her guest-chamber and a 
dinner of capons and wine and gossip at her hospitable board. 
The artisans and labourers on her land hved by her patronage. 
All along the muddy highroads the beggars coming to town 
passed word to each other that there stood a nunnery in the 
meadows, where they might have scraps left over from the con- 
vent meals and perhaps beer and a pair of shoes. The head of a 
house, indeed, was an important person from many points of 
view, as a neighbour, as a landlord and as a philanthropist. 

The journeys which a prioress was sometimes obhged to take 
upon the business of the convent offered many occasions of social 
intercourse with her neighbours. It is, indeed, striking how great 
a freedom of movement was enjoyed by these cloistered women. 
There are constant references to journeys in account rolls. When 
Dame Christian Bassett, Prioress of St Mary de Pre, rode to 


London for the suit against her predecessor in the Common 
Pleas, she was accompanied on one occasion by her priest, a 
woman and two men ; on two other occasions she took four men ; 
and during the whole time that the suit dragged on, she was 
continually riding about to take counsel with great men or with 
lawyers and journeying to and fro between St Albans and London. 
On another occasion the account notes a payment 

in expenses for the prioresse and the steward with their servants and 
for hors hyre and for the wages of them that wente to kepe the 
courte wyth the prioresse atte Wynge atte two tymes xvjs vd, 
whereof the stewards fee was that of vjs viijd; item paid to the 
fermour of Wynge for his expenss rx-d^. 

The accounts of St Michael's Stamford are full of items such as 
"in the expenses of the Prioress on divers occasions going to the 
Bishop, with hire of horses 3s." "in the expenses of the Prioress 
going to Rockingham about ourwoods is. 2\d.," "paidforthe hire 
of two horses for the prioress and her expenses going to Liddington 
to the Bishop for a certificate 2s. 81^.," "paid for the expenses 
of the Prioress at Burgh (i.e. Peterborough) for two days 5s. id." ; 
twice the Prioress went very far afield, as usual (it would appear) 
on legal business, for in 1377-8 there is an entry, "Item for 
the expenses of the Prioress and her companions at London for 
a month and more, in all expenses ^^5. 13s. ^d." (a large sum, a 
long distance and a lengthy stay), and in 1409-10 there is 
another payment "to the Prioress for expenses in London 15s." ^ 
In spite of repeated efforts to enforce stricter enclosure upon 
nuns, it is evident that the head of the house rode about on the 
business of the convent and overlooked its husbandry in person, 
even where (as at St Michael's Stamford) there was a male prior 
or custos charged with the ordering of its temporal affairs. The 
general injunction that an abbess was never to leave her house 
save "for the obvious utihty of the monastery or for urgent 

1 Dugdale, Mon. in, pp. 359-60. There are various other references to 
"Wynge" (i.e. Wing in Buckinghamshire) in the account, e.g. "Item 
receyvid of Richard Saie for the ferme of the personage of Wynge for a yere 
and a half within the tyme of this accompte xlviij^i. Item. rec. of the same 
Richard Saie as in party of payment of the same ferme for a quarter of a yere 
xs," "item, paid to tlie bisshop of Lincolns officers for the hcens of Wynge 
for ij yere xxijs viiji. Item paid to the ffermour of Wynge for his goune for 
ij yere xiiji m]d." For the London lawsuit see below, p. 202. 

^ See P.R.O. Mins. Accis. 1260, passim. The London references are in 
1260/7 and 1260/17 respectively. 


necessity "1 was capable of a very wide interpretation, and it is 
clear from the evidence of visitations and accounts that it was 
interpreted to include a great deal of temporal business outside 
the walls. If a house possessed a male custos the Prioress would 
have less occasion and less excuse for journeys, though for im- 
portant affairs her presence was probably always necessary; 
Bishop Drokensford, appointing a custos to Minchin Barrow, 
warns the Prioress no longer "to intermeddle with rural business 
(negociis campestribus) and other secular affairs " but to leave these 
to the custos and to devote herself to the service of God and to 
the stricter enforcement of the rule-. But in houses where no 
such official existed the prioress doubtless undertook a certain 
amount of general estate management. One of Alnwick's orders 
to the Prioress of Legbourne in 1440 was "that ye bysylly 
ouersee your baylly, that your husbandry be sufficyently gouer- 
nede to the avayle of your house "^; and in the intervals of their 
long struggle to keep nuns within their cloisters, the Bishops 
seem to have recognised the necessity for some travel on the 
part of the heads of houses, and to have facihtated such travel 
by granting them dispensations to have divine service celebrated 
wherever they might be. Thus in 1400 the Prioress of HaHwell 
obtained a hcence to hear divine service in her oratory within 
her mansion of Camberwell, or elsewhere in the diocese, during 
the next two years*, and in 1406 the Abbess of Tarrant Keynes 
was similarly allowed to have the service celebrated for herself 
and her household anywhere within the city and diocese of 

It is significant that among the arguments used to oppose 
Henry VIII's injunction that monks and nuns should be strictly 
enclosed (which was, for the nuns, only a repetition of Pope 
Boniface's decree of three centuries earher) was that of the 

1 Constitutions of the legate Ottobon in 1268. Wilkins, Concilia, 11, 
p. 18. 

2 Hugo, Medieval Nunneries of the County of Somerset, Minchin Barrow, 
p. 81. 

^ Line. Visit, ii, p. 187. 

* Wykeham's Reg. (Hants Rec. Soc), p. 500. 

^ V. C.H.Dorset, 11, -p. %<j. In 1374 the Abbess of Canonsleigh had licence 
to have divine service celebrated in her presence in the chapel of St Theobald 
in the parish of Burlescombe "dicto monasterio contigua," but her nuns 
were not to leave the claustral precincts on this pretext. Reg. of Bishop 
Brantyngham, ed. Hingeston-Randolph, pt I, p. 335. 


difficulty of supervising the husbandry of a house, if its head 
were confined to cloistral precincts. 

"Please it you to be advertised," wrote Cecily Bodenham, the last 
Abbess of Wilton, to Cromwell in 1535, "that master doctor Leigh, 
the King's grace's special visitor and your deputy in this behalf, 
visiting of late my house, hath given injunction that not only all my 
sisters, but I also, should continually keep and abide within the 
precincts of my house : which commandment I am right well content 
with in regard of my own person, if your mastership shall think it so 
expedient; but in consideration of the administration of mine of&ce 
and specially of this poor house which is in great debt and requireth 
much reparation and also which without good husbandry is not like, 
in long season, to come forward, and in consideration that the said 
husbandry cannot be, by my poor judgment, so well by an other 
overseen as by mine own person, it may please your mastership of 
your goodness to Ucense me, being associate with one or two of the 
sad and discreet sisters of my house, to supervise abroad such things 
as shall be for the profit and commodity of my house. WTiich thing 
though, peradventure, might be done by other, 3'et I ensure you that 
none will do it so faithfully for my house's profit as mine own self. 
Assuring your mastership that it is not, nor shall be at any time 
hereafter, my mind to he forth of my monastery any night, except 
by inevitable necessity I cannot then return home"^. 

It is, however, very plain that the journeys taken by abbesses 
and prioresses were not always strictly concerned with the busi- 
ness of their convents, or at least they combined business most 
adroitly with pleasure. These ladies were of good kin and they 
took their place naturally in local society, when they left their 
houses to oversee their husbandry, to interview a bishop or a 
lawyer about their tithes, or quite openly to visit friends and 
relatives. They emerged to attend the funerals of great folk; 
the Prioress of Carrow attended the funeral of John Paston in 
1466^, and Sir Thomas Cumberworth in his will (145 1) left the 

I will that like prior and priores that comes to my beryall at y' day 
hafe iiis iiijif and ilke chanon and Nune xijrf...and like prior and 
priores that comes to the xxx day (the month's-mind) hafe vj5 viijif 
and like chanon or none that comes to the said xxx day haf xxd^. 

' Wood, op. cit. II, pp. 156-7. Even Ap Rice seems to have considered 
Dr Legh's enforcement of enclosure as overstrict "for as many of these 
houses stand by husbandry they must fall to decay if the heads are not 
allowed to go out." Gairdner, Letters and Papers, etc. ix, no. 139 ; cf . preface, 
p. 20. 2 Rye, Carrow Abbey, p. 8. 

' Line. Dioc. Documents, ed. A. Clark (E.E.T.S.), pp. 50, 53. 


Sometimes they attended the deathbeds of relatives; among 
witnesses to the codicil to the will of Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of 
Durham, in 1404 was " rehgiosa femina Domina Johanna Priorissa 
de Swyna, soror dicti do mini episcopi"i; and it was not unusual 
for an abbess or prioress to be made supervisor or executrix 
of a will 2. Nor was the sad business of deathbeds the only share 
taken by these prioresses in public hfe. Clemence Medforde, 
Prioress of Ankerwyke, went to a wedding at Bromhale; and 
unfortunately a sheepfold, a dairy and a good timber granary 
chose that moment to catch fire and burn down, setting fire 
also to the smouldering indignation of her nuns; whence many 
recriminations when the Bishop came on his rounds^. Stranger 
still at times were the matters for which their friends sought 
their good offices. The aristocratic Isabel de Montfort, Prioress 
of Easebourne, was one of the ladies by whose oath Margaret 
de Camoys purged herself on a charge of adultery in 1295*- 

The fact that these ladies were drawn from the wealthy 
classes and constantly associated on terms of equality with their 
friends and relatives, sometimes led them to impart a most un- 
monastic luxury into their own lives. They came from the homes 
of lords hke Sir John Arundel, who lost not only his life but 
"two and fiftie new sutes of apparell of cloth of gold or tissue," 

• Test.Ebor. i, p. 314. 

" For instance Margaret Fairfax of Nunmonkton was one of the super- 
visores testamenti of John Fairfax, rector of Prescot, in 1393 and of Thomas 
Fairfax of Walton in 1394. lb. i, pp. 190, 204, The abbess of Syon was one 
of the three overseers of the will of Sir Richard Sutton, steward of her house 
in 1524. Aungier, Hist, and Antiquities of Syon Mon. p. 532. Emmota Fare- 
thorpe, Prioress of Wilberfoss, was executrix of John Appilby of Wilberfoss 
in 1438. V.C.H. Yorks. iii, p. 126 note. Margaret Delaryver, Prioress of 
St Clement's York, was executrix of Elizabeth Medlay (probably a boarder 
there). lb. Ill, p. 130. Joan Kay in 1525 left most of her property to her 
daughter the Prioress of Stixwould to found an obit there and made her 
executrix. Line. Wi!ls,ed. C. W. Foster (Line. Rec. Soc), I, p. 155. Sir John 
Beke, vicar of Aby,who left the greater part of his property to Greenfield for 
the same purpose, made the Prioress Isabel Smith executrix. lb. I, p. 162. 
These offices were sometimes filled by nuns other than healds of houses, e.g. 
the will of John Suthwell, rector of St Mary's South Kelsey, Lines., was 
witnessed by his sister Margaret, a nun, in 1390. Gibbons, Early Line. Wills, 
p. 76. Alice Conyers of Nunappleton was made coadjutress of the executors 
of Master John de Woodhouse in 1345. Test. Ebor. i, p. 15. ForCarrow nuns 
(usually the prioress) as executors, supervisors and witnesses, see Rye, 
Carrow Abbey, pp. xv, xvi, xxii, xxui, xxi.x. 

' Line. Visit. 11, p. 2. 

■• V.C.H. Sussex, 11, p. 84. See Rot. Pari, i, p. 147. 


when he was drowned off the Irish coast ; or Lord Berkeley who 
travelled with a retinue of twelve knights, twenty-four esquires 
"of noble family and descent" and a hundred and fifty men-at- 
arms, in coats of white frieze hned with crimson and embroidered 
with his badge; or else of country squires and frankhns, like 
the white-bearded gentleman of whom Chaucer says that 

To liven in delyt was ever his wone, 
For he was Epicurus owne sone, 

Withoute bake mete was never his hous. 
Of fish and flesh, and that so plentevous 
It snewed in his hous of mete and drinke. 
Of alle deyntees that men coude thinke ; 

or else their fathers were wealthy merchants, Uving in great 
mansions hung with arras and Ughted with glass windows, rich 
enough to provoke sumptuary laws and to entertain kings. It 
is perhaps not surprising that abbesses and prioresses should 
have found it hard to change the way of life, which they had 
led before they took the veil and which they saw all around 
them, when they rode about in the world. Carousings, gay 
garments, pet animals, frivolous amusements, many guests, 
superfluous servants and frequent escapes to the freedom of the 
road, are found not only at the greater houses but even at those 
which were small and poor. The diverting history of the flea and 
the gout shows that the luxurious abbess was already a byword 
early in the thirteenth century. 
The tale runs as follows: 

The lopp (flea) and the gout on a time spake together, and among 
other talking either of them asked [the] other of their lodging and 
how they were harboured and where, the night next before. And the 
flea made a great plaint and said, " I was harboured in the bed of an 
abbess, betwixt the white sheets upon a soft mattress and there 
I trowed to have had good harbourage, for her flesh was fat and 
tender, and thereof I trowed to have had my fill. And first, when 
I began for to bite her, she began to cry and call on her maidens and 
when they came, anon they lighted candles and sought me, but I hid 
me till they were gone. And then I bit her again and she came again 
and sought me with a light, so that I was fain to leap out of the bed ; 
and all this night I had no rest, but was chased and chevied [' charrid '] 
and scarce gat away with my life." Then answered the gout and said, 
" I was harboured in a poor woman's house and anon as I pricked her 
in her great toe she rose and wetted a great bowl full of clothes and 


went with them unto the water and stood therein with me up to her 
knees ; so that, what for cold and for holding in the water, I was near- 
hand slain." And then the flea said, "This night will we change our 
harbourage"; and so they did. And on the morn they met again and 
then the flea said unto the gout, "This night have I had good har- 
bourage, for the woman that was thine host yesternight was so weary 
and so irked, that I was sickerly harboured with her and ate of her 
blood as mickle as I would." And then answered the gout and said 
unto the flea: "Thou gavest me good counsel yestereven, for the 
abbess underneath a gay coverlet, and a soft sheet and a delicate, 
covered me and nourished me all night. And as soon as I pricked her 
in her great toe, she wrapped me in furs, and if I hurt her never so ill 
she let me alone and laid me in the softest part of the bed and troubled 
me nothing. And therefore as long as she lives I will be harboured 
with her, for she makes mickle of me." And then said the flea, " I will 
be harboured with poor folk as long as I live, for there may I be in 
good rest and eat my full and nobody let [hinder] me ' ' ^ 

The Durham man, William of Stanton, who went down St 
Patrick's hole on September 20th, 1409, and was shown the 
souls in torment there, has much the same tale to tell. He 
witnessed the trial of a prioress, whose soul had come there for 
judgment, and 

the fendis accusid hir and said that she come to religion for pompe 
and pride and for to have habundaunce of the worldes riches, and for 
ese of hir bodi and not for deuocion, mekenesse and lowenesse, as 
rehgious men and women owte to do; and the fendes said, " It is wel 
knowen to god and to al his angels of heven and to men dwellyng in 
that contree where she dweUid ynne, and all the fendes of hell, that 
she was more cosluer {sic) in puler [fur] weryng, as of girdeUes of 
siluer and overgilt and ringes on hir fingers, and siluer bokeles and 
ouergilt on hir shone, esy heng in nyghtes as it were [a queue] or an 
emprise in the world, not dayn5mg hir for to arise to goddis servis^; 
and with all delicate metes and drinkes she was fedde...and then the 
bisshop [her judge] enioyned hir to payne enduryng evermore til 
the day of dome " ^. 

Our visitation documents show us many abbesses and prior- 
esses like the gout's hostess or the tormented lady in St Patrick's 

1 An Alphabet of Tales, ed. M. M. Banks (E.E T.S., 1904), no. xv, 
pp. 13-14. I have modernised spelling. This fifteenth century English 
version is ultimately derived from an exemplum by Jacques de Vitry, of 
which it is a close translation. Exempla e sermonibus vulgaribus J. Vitria- 
censis, ed. T. F. Crane, no. lix, pp. 23-4. 

2 "Item Priorissa raro venit ad matutinas aut missas. Domina Kater- 
ina Hoghe dicit quod quedam moniales sunt quodammodo sompnolentes, 
tarde veniendo ad matutinas et alias horas canonicas." Line. Visit. 11, p. 133. 

' J. P. Krapp, The Legend of St Patrick's Purgatory: its later Literary 
History (1899), pp. 75-6. 


Purgatory. In the matter of dress the accusations brought agains 
Clemence Medforde, Prioress of Ankerwyke, in 1441, will sufiic( 
for an example: 

The Prioress wears golden rings exceeding costly with divers preciou; 
stones and also girdles silvered and gilded over and silken veils, anc 
she carries her veil too high above her forehead, so that her forehead 
being entirely uncovered, can be seen of all, and she wears furs o 
vair....Also she wears shifts of cloth of Reynes which costs sixteei 
pence the eU....Also she wears kirtles laced with silk and tiring pin; 
of silver and silver gilt and has made all the nuns wear the hke... 
Also she wears above her veil a cap of estate furred with budge. Iten 
she has round her neck a long cord of silk, hanging below her breas 
and on it a gold ring with one diamond. 

She confessed all except the cloth of Rennes, which she totalli 
denied, but pleaded that she wore fur caps "because of diver 
infirmities in the head." Alnwick made an injunction carefull] 
particularising all these sins : 

And also that none of yow, the prioresse ne none of the couente, wer^ 
no vayles of sylke ne no sjduere pynnes ne no gyrdles herneysed wit! 
syluere or golde, ne no mo rynges on your fyngres then oon, ye tha 
be professed by a bysshope, ne that none of yow vse no lased kyrtels 
but butoned or hole be fore, ne that ye vse no lases a bowte you 
nekkes wythe crucyfixes or rynges hangyng by thame, ne cappes 
astate abowe your vayles. . .and that ye so atyre your hedes that you 
vayles come downe nyghe to your yene^. 

If anyone doubts the truth of Chaucer's portrait of a prioress 
or its satirical intent, he has only to read that incomparabl 
observer's words side by side with this injunction of Alnwick: 

But sikerly she hadde a fair forheed ; 
It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe ; 
For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe. 
Ful fetis was her cloke, as I was war. 
Of smale coral aboute hir arm she bar 
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene; 
And ther-on heng a broche of gold ful shene. 
On which ther was first write a crowned A 
And after. Amor vincit omnia. 

Margaret Fairfax of Nunmonkton (1397) and the lady (he 
name is unknown) who ruled Easebourne in 1441 are oth( 

• Line. Visit. II, pp. 3, 4, 5, 8. The Prioress of Brewood White Ladi 
in Shropshire was severely rebuked in the first part of the fourteenth centu; 
for expensae voluptuariae, dress and laxity of rule. Reg. c/ Roger de Norbu 
(Will. Salt Archaeol. Soc. Collections, i), p. 261. 


examples of worldly prioresses ; they clearly regarded themselves 
as the great ladies they were by birth, and behaved like all the 
other great ladies of the neighbourhood. Margaret Fairfax used 
divers furs, including even the costly grey fur (gris) — the same 
with which the sleeves of Chaucer's monk were "purfiled at the 
bond"; she wore silken veils and "she frequently kept company 
with John Munkton and invited him to feasts in her room . . . and 
John Munkton (by whom the convent had for long been scan- 
dahsed) frequently played at tables " (the fashionable game for 
ladies, a kind of backgammon) "with the Prioress in her room 
and served her with drink." No wonder she had to sell timber in 
order to procure money^ The Prioress of Easebourne was even 
more frivolous ; the nuns complained that the house was in debt 
to the amount of ^^40 and this principally owing to her costly 
expenses : 

because she frequently rides abroad and pretends that she does so 
on the conamon business of the house, although it is not so, with a 
train of attendants much too large, and tarries long abroad, and she 
feasts sumptuously both when abroad and at home, and she is very 
choice in her dress, so that the fur trimmings of her mantle are worth 
a hundred shiUings, 

as great a scandal as Clemence Medforde's cloth of Rennes at 
sixteen pence the ell. The Bishop took strong measures to deal 
with this worldly lady ; she was deposed from aU administration 
of the temporal goods of the priory, which administration was 
committed to " Master Thomas Boleyn and John Lyhs, Esquire, 
until and so long as when the aforesaid house or priory shall be 
freed from debt." It was also ordered 

that the Prioress with all possible speed shall diminish her excessive 
household and shall only retain, by the advice and with the assent 
of the said John and Thomas, a household such as is merely necessary 
and not more. Also that the Prioress shall convert the fur trimmings, 
superfluous to her condition and very costly, to the discharge of the 
debts of the house. Also that if eventually it shall seem expedient 
to the said Masters Thomas and John at any time, that the Prioress 
should ride in person for the common business of the house, on such 
occasions she shall not make a lengthened stay abroad, nor shall she 
in the interval incur expenses in any way costly beyond what is 

Sul, and thus when despatched to go abroad she must and ought 
y to content herself with four horses only; 

1 Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 194. 


and those perhaps "bothe foul and lene," like the jade ridden 
by the Nonnes Preeste when Chaucer met him on the Canterbury 

The charge of gadding about the country side, sometimes (as 
in the Prioress of Easebourne's case) with a retinue which better 
beseemed the worldly rank they had abjured, was one not in- 
frequently made against the heads of nunneries 2. The Prioress 
of Stixwould was accused, in 1519, of spending the night too 
often outside the cloister with her secular friends and the Bishop 
ordered that in future she should sleep within the monastery, 
but might keep a private house in the precincts, for her greater 
refreshment and for receiving visitors^. The Prioress of WroxaU 
was ordered to stay more at home in 1323*, and in 1303 Bishop 
Dalderby even found that the Prioress of Greenfield had been 
absent from her house for two years ^. Even more frequent was 
the charge that abbesses and prioresses repaid too lavishly the 
hospitality which they doubtless received at neighbouring manors. 
Many abbesses gave that "dyscrete enterteynement," which 
Henry VIIFs commissioners so much admired at Catesby^; but 
others entertained too often and too well, in the opinion of their 
nuns; moreover famUy affection sometimes led them to make 
provision for their kinsfolk at the cost of the house. In 1441 
one of the nuns of Legbourne deposed that many kinsmen of 

1 Sussex Archaeol. Coll. ix, pp. 7-9. 

^ Compare the anecdote related by Caesarius of Heisterbach about 
Ensfrid of Cologne. "One day he met the abbess of the holy Eleven Thou- 
sand Virgins; before her went her clerks, ivrapped in mantles of grey fur 
like the nuns; behind her went her ladies and maidservants, filling the air 
with the sound of their unprofitable words ; while the Dean was followed by 
his poor folk who besought him for alms. \Vherefore this righteous man, 
burning with the zeal of disciphne, cried aloud in the hearing of all : ' Oh, 
lady Abbess, it would better adorn your reUgion, that ye, like me, should be 
followed, not by buffoons, but by poor folk '. ' Whereat she was much 
ashamed, not presuming to answer so worthy a man." Translated in Coulton, 
A Medieval Garner, p. 251. 

' V.C.H. Lines, n. p. 148. ' V.C.H. Warwick, u, p. 71. 

' V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 155. Sometimes, however, the heads of houses 
received episcopal dispensations to reside for a period outside their monas- 
teries, for the sake of health. Joan Formage, Abbess of Shaftesbury, re- 
ceived one in 1368, allowing her to leave her abbey for a year and to reside 
in her manors for air and recreation. V.C.H. Dorset, 11, p. 78. Josiana de 
Anlaby (the Prioress of Swine about whose election there had been so much 
trouble) had licence in 1303 to absent herself on account of ill-health. 
Dugdale, Mon. v, p. 493. 

• Dugdale, Mon. rv, p. 638. 


the prioress had frequent access to the house, though she did 
not know whether it was financially burdened by their visits; 
Alnwick ordered 

that ye susteyn none of your kynne or allyaunce wythe the commune 
godes of the house, wythe owten the hole assent of the more hole 
parte of the couent, ne that ye suffre your saide kynne or allyaunce 
hafe suche accesse to your place, where thurghe the howse shall be 

A similar injunction had been made at Chatteris in 1345, where 
the abbess was warned not to bestow the convent rents and 
goods unlawfully upon any of her relatives^. The charge was, 
however, most common in later times, when discipUne was in 
all ways relaxed. At Easebourne in 1478 one of the nuns 
complained "that kinsmen of the prioress very often and for 
weeks at a time frequent the priory and have many banquets 
of the best food, while the sisters have them of the worst "^. 
The neighbouring nunnery of Rusper was said in 152 1 to be 
ruinous and " greatly burdened by reason of friends and kinsmen 
of the lady prioress who continually received hospitality there " *; 
at Studley in 1520 there were complaints that the brother of 
the prioress and his wife stayed within the monastery, and ten 
years later it was ordered that no corrody should be given to 
the prioress' mother, until more was known of her way of life 5. 
At Fhxton in the same year one of the nuns asserted that 
the mother of the prioress had her food at the expense of the 
house, but whether she paid anything or not was unknown; it 
appears, however, that she was in charge of the dairy, so that 
she may have been boarded in return for her services. A charac- 
teristic instance is preserved in Bishop Longland's letter to the 
Prioress of Nuncoton in 1531, charging her 

that frome hensforth ye do nomore burden ne chardge your house 
with suche a nombre of your kinnesfolks as ye haue in tymes past 
used. Your good mother it is meate ye haue aboute yow for your 
comforte and hirs bothe. And oon or ij moo of suche your saddest 
kynnes folke, whome ye shall thynk mooste conuenyent but passe 
not.... And that ye give nomore soo lyberally the goods of your 
monastery as ye haue doon to your brother george thomson and 
your brodres children, with grasing of catell, occupying your lands, 

^ Line. Visit. 11, p. 187. ^ Dugdale, Mon. 11, p. 619. 

' Sussex Archaeol. Coll. ix, pp. 18-19. 

* lb. v, p. 256. ' V.C.H. Oxon. n, p. 78. 


making of Irneworke to pleugh, and carte, and other like of your 
stuff and in your forge^. 

Much information about the conduct of abbesses and prior- 
esses may be obtained from a study of episcopal registers, and 
in particular of visitation documents. An analysis of Bishop 
Alnwick's visitations of the diocese of Lincoln (1436-49) gives 
interesting results. In all but four houses there were few or no 
complaints against the head. Sometimes it was said that she 
failed to dine in the frater or to sleep in the dorter, sometimes 
that she was a poor financier, and in two cases the charge of 
favouritism was made ; but the complaints at these sixteen houses 
were, on the whole, insignificant. The four remaining heads were 
unsatisfactory. The Prioress of St Michael's Stamford was so 
incompetent (owing to bodily weakness) that she took httle part 
in the common hfe of the house and regularly stayed away from 
the choir, dined and slept by herself, though the Bishop refused 
to give her a dispensation to do so. The administration of the 
temporahties of the house was committed by Alnwick to two 
of the nuns, but when he came back two years later one of these 
had had a child and the other was unpopular on account of her 
autocratic behaviour. The moral condition of the house (one nun 
was in apostasy with a man in 1440, and in 1442 and 1445 two 
nuns were found to have borne children) must in part be set 
down to the lack of a competent head^. The Prioress of Gracedieu 
was also old and incompetent ; her subprioress deposed that 
by reason of old age and incapacity the prioress has renounced for 
herself all governance of matters temporal, nor does she take part 
in divine service, so that she is of no use ; but if she makes any correc- 
tions, she makes them with words of chiding and abuse. ...She makes 
the secrets of their rehgious life common among the secular folk that 
sit at table with her... and under her rehgious discipline almost al- 
together is at an end. 

Other nuns gave similar evidence and all complained of her 

favouritism for two young nuns, whom she called her disciples. 

Here, as at St Michael's Stamford, the autocratic behaviour of 

the nun who was in charge of the temporahties had aroused 

the resentment of her sisters and the whole convent was evidently 

seething with quarrels^. The Prioress of Ankervvyke, Clemence 

' Archaeologia, xlviii, pp. 56, 58. 

2 Alnwick's Visit. MS. fi. 83 and d, 39^, 96. 

' Line. Visit. 11, pp. 120, 121. 


Medforde, was equally unpopular with her nuns. The ringleader 
against her was a certain Dame Margery Kirkby, who poured 
out a flood of complaints when Alnwick came to the house. 
The chief charge against her was that of financial mis- 
management. She was obliged to admit that she received, paid 
and administered everything without consulting the convent, 
keeping the common seal in her own custody all the year round 
and never rendering account. She was also said to have allowed 
the sheepfold, dairy and granary to be burned down owing to 
her carelessness, one result of which was that all the grain had 
to stand in the church. She had alienated the plate and psalters 
of the house, having lent three of the latter and pawned a 
chahce; another chahce and a thurible had been broken up to 
make a drinking cup, but, as she had been unable to pay the 
sum demanded, the pieces remained in the hands of a monk, 
who had undertaken to get the work done. She was charged 
with having alienated timber in large quantities and with having 
cut down trees at the wrong time of year, so that no new wood 
grew again; but she denied this accusation. Another charge 
made against her by Margery Kirkby, that of wearing jewels and 
rich clothes, has already been described; she admitted it and 
the fault was the more grave in that she omitted to provide 
suitable clothes for the nuns, who went about in rags. It was 
also complained that she behaved with undue severity to her 
sisters; she made difficulties about giving them hcence to see 
their friends; and she had a most trying habit of coming late 
to the services, and then making the nuns begin all over again. 
It is obvious that she was greatly disliked by the convent, per- 
haps because she was a stranger in their midst, having been 
imported from Bromhale to be Prioress; she evidently sought 
relief from the black looks of her sisters by visiting her old home, 
for she was away at a wedding in Bromhale when the farm 
buildings caught fire, and one of the missing psalters had been 
lent to the prioress of that place. Her regime at Ankerwyke 
had been fraught with ill results to the convent, for no less 
than six nuns had (without her knowledge, so she said) gone 
into apostasy; perhaps to escape from her too rigorous sway. 
Nevertheless one cannot help feehng that Margery Kirkby may 
have been a difficult person to live with ; the Prioress complained 


that the nuns were often very easily moved against her and that 
Dame Margery had called her a thief to her face; and though 
it may have been conducive to economy that the triumphant 
accuser (elected by the convent) should share with the Prioress 
the custody of the common seal, it can hardly have been con- 
ducive to harmonyi. At any rate poor luxury-loving Clemence 
died in the following year and Margery Kirkby ruled in her 

But the most serious misdemeanours of all were brought to 
Ught when Alnwick visited Catesby in 1442^. Here the bad 
example of the Prioress, Margaret Wavere, seems to have con- 
taminated the nuns, for all of them were in constant communica- 
tion with seculars and one of them had given birth to a child. 
The Prioress' complaint that she dared not punish this offender 
is easily inteUigible in the light of her own evil life. The most 
serious charge against her was that she was unduly intimate 
with a priest named William Taylour, who constantly visited 
the nunnery and with whom she had been accustomed to go 
into the gardens in the village of Catesby; and one of the younger 
nuns had surprised the two in flagrante delicto. She was a woman 
of violent temper; two nuns deposed that when she was moved 
to anger against any of them she would tear off their veils and 
drag them about by the hair, calhng them beggars and harlots^, 
and this in the very choir of the church; if they committed 
any fault she scolded and upbraided them and would not cease 
before seculars or during divine service; "she is very cruel and 
severe to the nuns and loves them not," said one; "she is so 
harsh and impetuous that there is no pleasing her," sighed 
another; "she sows discord among the sisters," complained a 
third, "saying so-and-so said such-and-such a thing about 
thee, if the one to whom she speaks has transgressed." More 
serious still, from the visitor's point of view, were the threats 
by which she sought to prevent the nuns from revealing any- 

' Line. Visit. 11, pp. 2-4, 6. 

^ Cat. of Pat. Rolls (1441-6), p. 141. ' Line. Visit. 11, pp. 46-52. 

* Compare the complaint of the sisters of the hospital of St James 
outside Canterbury in 151 1, that the Prioress was a diffamatrix of the sisters 
and used to say publicly in the neighbourhood that they were incontinent 
et publiee meretrices, to the great scandal of the house. The ages of the 
sisters were 84, 80, 50 and 36 respectively and the Prioress herself was 74. 
Eng. Hist. Rev. VI, p. 23. 


thing at the visitation; two of them declared that she had beaten 
and imprisoned those who gave evidence when Bishop Gray 
came to the house, and sister Isabel Benet whispered that 
the Prioress had boasted of having bribed the bishop's clerk 
with a purse of money, to reveal everything that the nuns 
had said on that occasion. Her practice of compelling the 
nuns to perform manual labour was greatly resented — why 
should they 

Swinken with hir handes and laboure 
As Austin bit ? How shal the world be served ? 
Lat Austin have his swink to him reserved. 

It appeared, however, that they were anxious to 

studie and make hemselven wood 
Upon a book in cloistre alwey to poure, 

or so they informed Alnwick. One Agnes Halewey complained 
that, though she was young and wished to be instructed in her 
religion and such matters, the Prioress set her to make beds 
and to sew and spin; another sister declared that when guests 
came the Prioress sent the young nuns to make up their beds, 
which was " fuU of danger and a scandal to the house "i; another 
deposed that the choir was not properly observed, because the 
Prioress was wont to employ the younger nuns upon her own 
business. There were also the usual charges of financial mis- 
management and of wasting the goods of the convent; she had 
let buildings fall to ruin for want of repair and two sheepfolds \ 
had stood roofless for two whole years, so that the wood rotted 
and the lambs died of the damp. Whereas thirteen years ago, | 
when she became prioress, the house was worth £60 a year, now 
it was worth a bare £50 and was in debt, owing to the bad rule 

' Compare Archbishop Bowet's injunction to the Prioress of Hampole 
in 141 1 that " AUce Lye, her nun who held the of&ce of hostilaria, or anyone 
who succeeded her in office, should henceforth be free from entering the 
room* of guests to lay beds, but that the porter should receive the bed- 
clothes from the hostilaria at the lower gate, and when the guests had de- 
parted, should give them back to her at the same place." V.C.H. Yorks. 
Ill, p. 165. For the charge that the Prioress made the nuns work, compare 
the case of Eleanor Prioress of Arden in 1396 (pp. 8g-6 below) and the case 
of the Prioress of Easebourne in 1441 : " Also the Prioress compels her sisters 
to work continually Uke hired workwomen (ad modum mulieres conducti- 
ciarum) and they receive nothing whatever for their own use from their 
work, but the prioress takes the whole profit (totum percipit)." Sussex 
Archaeol. Coll. ix, p. 7. 



of the Prioress and of William Taylour, and this in spite of th 
fact that she had on her entry received from Joan Catesby : 
sack and a half of wool and twelve marks, with which to pa; 
debts and make repairs. She had cut down woods. She hac 
pawned a sacramental cup and other silver pieces ; the table 
cloths " fit for a king " (mappalia conueniencia pro seruiendo regi) 
and the set of a dozen silver spoons which she had found a 
the priory, all had vanished away. She had not provided th( 
nuns with clothes and money for their food for three quarter 
of the year, and she never rendered an account to them. More 
over all things in the house were ordered by her mother and b; 
a certain Joan Coleworthe, who kept the keys of aU the offices 
and both the Prioress and her mother revealed the secrets of th 
chapter to people in the village. Examined upon these separat 
counts, the Prioress denied the majority of them; she said tha 
she had not been cruel to the nuns or laid violent hands upoi 
them, or called them liars and harlots or sowed discord amon; 
them; that she had not set them to make beds or to do othe 
work; that she had never punished the nuns for giving e\ddenc 
at the last visitation or bribed the Bishop's clerk; that she hai 
never allowed her mother and Joan to rule everything ; and tha 
she had never revealed the secrets of the chapter; on thecontrar; 
those secrets were spread abroad by the secular visitors of th 
nuns. She admitted her failure to render account, and gave a 
a reason that she had no clerk to write it for her; she said tha 
she had pawned the cup with the consent of the convent, i 
order to pay tithes, and that she had cut down trees for the us 
of the house, partly with and partly without the consent of th 
house; as to the ruinous buildings, she said that some had bee 
repaired and some not, and as to the outside debts she prof esse 
herself ready to render an account. The most serious charge ( 
all, concerning William Taylour, she entirely denied. The Bisho 
thereupon gave her the next day to purge herself with four ( 
her sisters for the things which she denied; but she was unab 
to produce any compurgatresses* and Alnwick accordingly four 
her guilty and obliged her to abjure all intercourse with Tayloi 
in the future. 

It might be imagined that such a case as that of Margan 
' Compare the case of Denise Loweliche, p. 458 below. 


Wavere was in tha highest degree exceptional, likely to occur 
but once in a century. Unfortunately it appears to have occurred 
far more often. In the fifty years, between 1395 and 1445, 
Margaret Wavere can be matched, in different parts of the 
country, by no less than six other prioresses guilty of immorahty 
and bad government ; and it must be reaHsed that this is probably 
an understatement, because so much evidence has been destroyed, 
or is as yet unexplored in episcopal registries. Of these cases 
two belong to the diocese of York, one (besides the case of 
Margaret Wavere) to the diocese of Lincoln, one to the diocese 
of Salisbury, one to the diocese of Winchester and one to the 
diocese of Norwich. Fully as bad a woman as Margaret Wavere 
was Eleanor, prioress of Arden, a little Yorkshire house which 
contained seven nuns, when it was visited by Master John de 
Suthwell in 1396 (during the vacancy of the see of York)i. The 
nuns were unanimous and bitter in their complaints. The Prioress 
kept the convent seal in her possession, sometimes for a year 
at a time, and did everything according to her own will without 
consulting her sisters. She sold woods and trees and disposed 
of the money as she would, and all rents were similarly received 
and expended by her. When she assumed office the house was 
in good condition, owing some five marks only, but now it owed 
great sums to divers people, amounting to over £16 in the 
detailed list given by the nuns 2, and this in spite of the fact 
that she had received many alms and gifts during her year of 
office — £18. 13s. 4^. in all; indeed the two marks which had 
been given her by Henry Arden's executors that the convent 
might pray for his soul, had been concealed by her from the 
nuns, "to the deception of the said Henry's soul, as it appeared 
to them." She had pawned the goods of the house, at one time 
a piece of silver with a cover and a maser worth 40s., at another 
time a second maser and the Prioress' seal of office itself, for 
which she got 5s.; even the sacred vestments were not safe in 
her rapacious hands and a new suit was pawned, with the result 

1 Test. Ebor. i, pp. 283-5 (summary in V.C.H. Yorks. iir, pp. 114-5). 
" An analysis of receipts and expenditure by the Prioress during her 
term of office, given at the end of the comperla, stands thus : 

In the first year: Receipts i^^. 7s. dd. Expenses ii^. 6s. 9,d. 

In the second year: Receipts £25. 3s. od. Expenses £^0. 

In the third year: Receipts i^(>. gs. 6d. Expenses £27. 3s. od. 


that it was soiled and worn and not yet consecrated. The wall 
and roof of the church and dorter and the rest of the house wer 
in ruins ; there were no waxen candles round the altar, no hght 
for matins or for the other canonical hours, no Paschal candles 
when she first took office she found ten pairs of sheets of goo( 
linen cloth (cloth of "lake" and "inglyschclath," to wit) an( 
now they were worn out and in all her time not one new pai 
had been made; the nuns had only two sacred albs and one o 
them had been turned to secular uses, viz. to "bultyng mele,' 
and on several occasions had been found on the beds of laymei 
in the stable. The allowances of bread and beer due to the nun 
were inadequately and unpunctually paid ; sometimes she woul( 
withdraw them altogether and the sisters would be reduced t 
drinking water^. She was not even a good bargainer, for by he 
negligence a bushel of corn was bought by an agreement fo 
11^., when it could have been had in the pubhc market for gd. 
8d. or yd. Domineering she was, too, and sent three young nun 
out haymaking, so that they did not get back before nightfa 
and divine service could not be said until then ; and she provoke 
secular boys and laymen to chatter in the cloister and church i: 
contempt of the nuns. There were graver charges against her i; 
connection with a certain married man, John Bever, with whor 
she was wont to go abroad, resting in the same house by night 
and once they lay alone within the priory, in the Prioress' chambe 
by night; and during the whole summer she slept alone in h€ 
principal room outside the dorter and was much suspected o 
account of John Bever. It will be noticed that this case present 
many points of similarity with that of Margaret Wavere, th 
chief difference being that at Arden the Prioress alone seen 
to have been in grave fault; she made no accusation again; 
her nuns, save that they talked in the choir and in the offics 
and that the sacrist was negligent about ringing the bell fc 
divine service. Nor had they anything to say against each othe 
The other Yorkshire case came to light in 1444, when Archbishc 
Kemp stated that at his visitation of the Priory of Wykehai 
very grave defaults and crimes had been detected against tl 

^ The nuns of Swine made the same complaint in 1268. " Binis, tame 
diebus in ebdomada aqua pro cervisia eisdem subministratur." Reg. 
Walter Giffard (Surtees Soc), p. 148. 


Prioress, Isabella Westirdale, "who after she had been raised to 
that office had been guilty of incontinence with many men, both 
within and outside the monastery"; she was deprived and sent 
to do penance at Nunappleton. 

After the case of Eleanor of Arden the next scandal con- 
cerning a prioress was discovered in 1404 at Bromhale in Berk- 
shire. The nuns complained in that year to the Archbishop of 
Canterbury that the Prioress Juliana had for twenty years led 
an exceedingly dissolute life and of her own temerity and without 
their consent had usurped the rule of Prioress, in which position 
she had wasted, alienated, consumed and turned to her own 
nefarious uses the chalices, books, jewels, rents and other property 
of the housei. The next year an even more serious case occurred 
at Wintney in Hampshire, if the charges contained in a papal 
commission of 1405 were true^. The Archdeacon of Taunton and 
a canon of Wells were empowered to visit the house : 

the Pope having heard that Alice, who has been Prioress for about 
twenty years, has so dilapidated its goods, from which the Prioress 
for the time being is wont to administer to the nuns their food and 
clothing, that it is 200 marks in debt; that she specially cherishes 
two immodest nuns one of whom, her own {suam) sister, had apostatized 
and left the monastery and, remaining in the world, had had children, 
the other like the first in evil life and lewdness but not an apostate, 
and feeds and clothes them splendidly, whilst she feeds the other 
honest nuns meanly and for several years past has not provided them 
with clothing; that she has long kept and keeps Thomas Ferring, 
a secular priest, as companion at board and in bed (in commensalem 
ei sibi contubernalem) , who has long slept and still sleeps, contrary 
to the institutes of the order, within the monastery, beneath the 
dorter, in a certain chamber (domo), in which formerly no secular had 
ever been wont to sleep and in which the said priest and Alice meet 
together at will by day and night, to satisfy their lust (pro explenda 
libidine), on account of which and other enormous and scandalous 
crimes, which Alice has committed and still commits, there is grave 
and public scandal against her in those parts, to the great detriment 
of the monastery. 

If these things were found to be true the commissioners were 
ordered to deprive the Prioress. In 1427 there occurred another 
very serious case of misconduct in a Prioress, which (as at 
Catesby) seems to have tainted the whole flock and is a stiU 
further illustration of the fact that a bad prioress often meant 

1 Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 506 note. ^ Cal. of Papal Letters, vi, p. 55. 


an ill-conducted house. By her own admission Isabel Hermyte, 
Prioress of Redlingfield in Suffolk, had never been to confession 
nor observed Sundays and principal double feasts since the last 
visitation, two years before. She and Joan Tates, a novice, had 
not slept in the dorter with the other nuns, but in a private 
chamber. She had laid violent hands on Agnes Brakle on St 
Luke's day; and she had been alone with Thomas Langeland, 
bailiff, in private and suspicious places, to wit in a small hall 
with closed windows " and sub heggerowes." Nor was the material 
condition of the house safer in her hands. There were only nine 
nuns instead of the statutory number of thirteen and only one 
chaplain instead of three ; no annual account had been rendered, 
obits had been neglected, goods alienated and trees cut down 
without the knowledge and consent of the convent. Altogether 
she confessfed that she was neither rehgious nor honest in con- 
versation and the effect of her conduct upon her charges was 
only too apparent, for the novice Joan Tates confessed to in- 
continence and asserted that it had h|en provoked by the bad 
example of the Prioress. The result of this exposure was the 
voluntary resignation of the guilty woman, in order to save a 
scandal, and her banishment to the priory of Wix; the whole 
convent was ordered to fast on bread and beer on Fridays, and 
Joan Tates was to go in front of the solemn procession of the 
convent on the following Sunday, wearing no veil and clad in 
white flannel!. 

^ V.C.H. Suffolk, II, pp. 83-4. The other cases may be noted more 
briefly. For the story of Denise Loweliche, Prioress of Markyate (Beds.), 
seeLmc. Visit, i, pp. 82—6, and below, pp. 458-9. Ahce de Chilterne, Prioress 
of White Hall, Ilchester, was deprived for incontinence with the chaplain 
and for wasting the goods of the house to such an e.xtent that the nuns were 
reduced to begging their bread (1323). Hugo, Med. Nunneries of Somerset, 
Whitehall in Ilchester, pp. 78-9 and Reg. John of Drohensford (Somerset Rec. 
Soc), pp. 227, 245, 259. In 1325 Joan de Barton, Prioress of Moxby, was 
deprived super lapsu carnis Avith the chaplain. V .CH. Yorks. ill, p. 240. In 
1495 Elizabeth Popeley was deprived, two years after her confirmation as 
Prioress of Arthington, for having given birth to a child and for wasting 
the goods of the house. lb. p. 189. The case of Katherine Wells, Prioress 
of Littlemore, who put her nuns in the stocks and took the goods of the 
house to provide a dowry for her illegitimate daughter is noted below, 
Note F. See also the stories of Elizabeth Broke, Abbess of Romsey, and 
Agnes Tawke, Prioress of Easebourne, Liveing, Rec. Romsey Abbey, pp. 211- 
222 and Sussex Archaeol. Coll. ix, pp. 14—19. Joan Fletcher, Prioress of 
Basedale, resigned from fear of deposition in 1527 and then cast aside her 
habit and left the house. Yorks. Archaeol. Journ. xvi, pp. 431—2. 


It is the darker side of convent life that these ancient scandals 
call up before our eyes. The system produced its saints as well 
as its sinners; we have only to remember the German nunnery 
of Helfta to be sure of that. The Enghsh nunneries of the later 
middle ages produced no great mystics, but there have come 
down to us word-pictures of at least two heads of houses worthy 
to rank with the best abbesses of any age; not women of genius, 
but good, competent housewives, careful in all things of the 
welfare of their nuns, practical as well as pious. The famous 
description of the Abbess Euphemia of Wherwell (1226-57) is too 
well-known to be quoted here in fuU^ : 

"It is most fitting," says her convent chartulary, "that we should 
always perpetuate the memory, in our special prayers and suffrages, 
of one who ever worked for the glory of God, and for the weal of 
both our souls and bodies. For she increased the number of the Lord's 
handmaids in this monastery from forty to eighty, to the exaltation 
of the worship of God. To her sisters, both in health and sickness, 
she administered the necessaries of life with piety, prudence, care 
and honesty. She also increased the sum allowed for garments by 
lid. each. The example of her holy conversation and charity, in 
conjunction with her pious exhortations and regular discipline, caused 
each one to know how, in the words of the Apostle, to possess her 
vessel in sanctification and honour. She also, with maternal piety 
and careful forethought, built, for the use of both sick and sound, 
a new and large farmery away from the main buildings and in con- 
junction with it a dorter and other necessary offices. Beneath the 
farmery she constructed a watercourse, through which a stream 
flowed with sufficient force to carry off all refuse that might corrupt 
the air. Moreover she built there a place set apart for the refreshment 
of the soul, namely a chapel of the Blessed Virgin, which was erected 
outside the cloister behind the farmery. With the chapel she enclosed 
a large place, which was adorned on the north side with pleasant 
vines and trees. On the other side, by the river bank, she built offices 
for various uses, a space being left in the centre, where the nuns are 
able from time to time to enjoy the pure air. In these and in other 
numberless ways, the blessed mother Euphemia provided for the 
worship of God and the welfare of her sisters." 

Nor was she less prudent in ruling secular business: "she also 
so conducted herself with regard to exterior affairs," says the 
admiring chronicler, "that she seemed to have the spirit of a 

1 It was translated by the Rev. Dr Cox in V.C.H. Hants. 11, pp. 132-3, 
from a chartulary of Wherwell Abbey compiled in the fourteenth century 
{Brit. Mus. Egerton MS. 2104) and quoted by Gasquet, English Monastic 
Life, pp. 155-8. 


man rather than of a woman." She levelled the court of the 
abbey manor and built a new hall, and round the walled court 
"she made gardens and vineyards and shrubberies in places 
that were formerly useless and barren and which now became 
both serviceable and pleasant"; she repaired the manor-houses 
at Tufton and at Middleton; when the bell tower of the dorter 
fell down, she built a new one "of commanding height and of 
exquisite workmanship" ; and one of the last acts of her hfe was 
to take down the unsteady old presbytery and to lay with her 
own hands, "having invoked the grace of the Holy Spirit, with 
prayers and tears," the foundation stone of a new building, 
which she lived to see completed: 

These and other innumerable works our good superior Euphemia 
performed for the advantage of the house, but she was none the less 
zealous in works of charity, gladly and freely exercising hospitality, 
so that she and her daughters might find favour with One Whom Lot 
and Abraham and others have pleased by the grace of hospitality. 
Moreover, because she greatly loved to honour duly the House of 
God and the place where His glory dwells, she adorned the church 
with crosses, reliquaries, precious stones, vestments and books. 

Finally, she "who had devoted herself when amongst us to the 
service of His house and the habitation of His glory, found the 
due reward for her merits with our Lord Jesus Christ," and died 
amid the blessings of her sisters. 

Less famous is the name of another mighty builder, who 
ruled, some two centuries later, the little Augustinian nunnery of 
Crabhouse in Norfolk^. Joan Wiggenhall was (as has already 
been pointed out) a lady of good family and had influential 
friends; she was installed as Prioress in 1420, and began to 
build at once. In her first year she demolished a tumble-down 
old barn and caused it to be remade; this cost ;^45. 9s. 6d., 
irrespective of the timber cut upon the estate and of the tiles 
from the old barn, but the friends of the house helped and Sir 
John Ingoldesthorpe gave ;£20 "to his dyinge," and the Arch- 
deacon of Lincoln 10 marks. Cheered by this, the Prioress con- 
tinued her operations; in her second year she persuaded the 

1 See the account in the Reg. of Crabhouse Nunnery, ed. Mary Bateson 
(Norfolk Archaeology, xi, pp. 59-63), Also a charming account of Crab- 
house (founded largely on this register) in Jessopp, Ups and Downs of an 
Old Nunnery (Frivola, 1896, pp. 28 ff.). The English portion of the register 
was written some time after 1470. 


Prior of Shouldham to co-operate with her in roofing the chancel 
of Wiggenhall St Peter's, towards which she paid 20 marks, and 
she also made the north end of her own chamber for 10 marks, 
and in her third year she walled the chancel of St Peter's and 
completed the south end of her chamber. Then she began the 
great work of her life, the church of the nunnery itself, and for 
three years this was the chief topic of conversation in all the 
villages round, and the favourite charity of all her neighbours: 

"Also in the iiij yere of the same Jone Prioresse," runs the account 
in Crabhouse Register, "Ffor myschefe that was on the chyrche 
whiche myght not be reparid but if it were newe maid, with the 
counseyle of here frendys dide it take downe, trostynge to the helpe 
of cure Lorde and to the grate charite of goode cristen men and so 
with helpe of the persone before seyde (her cousin, Edmund Perys, the 
parson of Watlington) and other goode frendes as schal be shewyd 
aftyrward, be the steringe of oure Lorde and procuringe of the person 
forseyde sche wrowght there upon iij yere and more contynuali 
and made it, blessyd be God, whiche chirche cost cccc mark, whereof 
WiUiam Harald that hthe in the chapel of Our Lady payde for the 
ledynge of the chirch vij skore mark. And xl h. payede we for the 
roofe, the whiche xl li. we hadde of Richard Steynour, Cytesen of 
Norwiche, and more hadde we nought of the good whiche he bequeathe 
us on his ded-bedde in the same Cyte, a worthly place clepyd Tom- 
londe whiche was with holde fro us be untrewe man his seketoures. 
God for his mekyl mercy of the wronge make the ryghte." 

The indignant complaint of the nuns, balked of their " worthly 
place clepyd Tomlonde," is very typical; there was always an 
executor in hell as the middle ages pictured it, and a popular 
proverb affirmed that " too secuturs and an overseere make thre 
theves "^. In this case, however, other friends were ready to make 
up for the deficiencies of those untrue men : 

And the stallis with the reredose, the person beforeseyde payde fore 
XX pounde of his owne goode. And xxvi mark for ij antiphoneres 
whiche liggen in the queer. And xx li. Jon Lawson gaf to the chirche. 
And XX mark we hadde for the soule of Jon Watson. And xx mark 
for the soule of Stevyn York to the werkys of the chirche and to other 

' Reliquiae Antiquae, 1, p. 314. See also a little further on in the Crab- 
house Register: "And xx mark we hadde of the gifte of Edmunde Peris 
persoun of Watlington before seyde sekatoure to the same Roger wiche 
was nought payed tyl xvj yere aftyr his day." Compare the complaint at 
Rusper in 1478: "Item dicit quod Johannes Wood erat executor domini 
Ricardi Honner...qui fuit a retro in solucione pensionis vs. per xxx annos 
priorisse et conventui de Rushper." But this may mean that the late 
Richard (a rector) had failed to pay. Sussex Archaeol. Coll. v, p. 255. 


werkys doon before. And xxi mark of the gylde of the Trinite which 
Neybores helde in this same chirche. The glasynge of the chirche, the 
scripture maketh mencyon; onh God be worshipped and rewarde to 
all cristen soules. 

After the death of the good parson of Watlington, another 
cousin of the Prioress, Dr John Wiggenhall, came to her aid, 
and in her ninth year, she set to work once more upon the 
church, and she 

arayed up the chirche and the quere, that is for to seye, set up the 
ymagis and pathed the chirche and the quere, and stoUd it and made 
doris, which cost x pownde, the veyl of the chirche with the auter- 
clothis in sute cost xls.^ 

During the building of the church the Prioress had not 
neglected other smaller works and a long chamber on the east 
side of the hall was built; but it was not untU her tenth year, 
when the building and "arraying" of the church was finished, 
that she had time and money to do much ; then she made some 
necessary repairs to the barn at St Peter's and built a new malt- 
house, which cost ten marks. In her twelfth year "for mischeef 
that was on the halle she toke it downe and made it agen"; 
but alas, on the Tuesday next after Hallowmas 1432, a fire broke 

1 With this account of the building of Crabhouse church it is interesting 
to compare the costs incurred in building the "newe chirch" of Syon Abbey 
in 1479-80. Two small schedules of accounts dealing with this work are 
preserved in the Public Record Office. The first is particularly interesting 
for its list of workmen employed: "Summa of the wages of Werkmen 
wirchyng as well opon and vryane the newe chirch of the monastery of 
Syun, as opon parte of the newe byldyng of the Brether Cloyster, chapitir- 
hous and hbrary, that is to sey fr. the xth day of October in the xixth yere 
of the reigne of kyng E. the iiijth vnto the vijth day of October in the xxth 
yere of the reigne of the same kyng, as it is declared partelly in ij jumaUes 
of work thereof examyned. It. ffremasons ccxlv li. xij s. xj d. It. harde- 
hewers xxx h. xj s. vij d. ob. It. Brekeleyers xvj h. xvj s. ij d. It. chalk- 
hewers xlj s. iij d. It. Carpenters and joynours xlvj s. tx d. It. Tawyers 
ix li. xvj s. iiij d. It. Smythes xliiij li. xLx s. x d. It. Laborers xxxvj li. 
xix s. vij d. It. Paied to James Powle Brekeman for makyng of breks 
Ixxvj li. viij s. iiij d. Summa to', cccclxvij li. viij s. iij d. ob." {P.R.O. 
Mins. Accts. 1261/2). The other schedule gives further details: "Expenses 
vpon our newe churche. The makyng of the rof w' tymber and cariage and 
workmanship ixi^lxv h. xviij s. iij d. q», lede castyng, jynyTig, leyyng 
sawdir with diuers cariage v<^x.xxv li. x s. x d. Iron bought with cariage, 
weyng and whirvage Ixxiij li. xvi s. x d. Ragstoue, assheler iireston with 
cariage, masons and labourers for the vantyng and ffurryng of the pilers 
and purvyaunes vnto the xxvij of maii m'm'v'^xlix li. xj 3. j d. ob. Summa 
total for the church m'm'mimicxxxiiij li. xvij s. ob. q^. Expenses of the 
cloystor and dortour vnto the xxvij day of maii vj ^Uij ^^^xviij li. ix s. x d. 
Summa to', m'm'm'm'viij 'xxxiij li. vj s. x d. ob. q»." (lb. 1261/3.) 


out and burned down the new malt-house, and another malt- 
house with a solar above, full of malt. This misfortune (so 
common in the middle ages) only put new heart into Joan 
Wiggenhall : 

thanne the same prioresse in here xiij yere with the grace of owre Lord 
God and with the helpe of mayster Johnne Wygenale beforseyd, and 
with helpe of good cristen men which us relevid made a malthouse 
with a Doffcote, that now ovyr the Kylne, whiche house is more than 
eyther of thoo that brent. And was in the werkynge fulh ij yere tyl 
her xiiij yere were passyd out, which cost 1 pounde. Also the same 
prioresse in her xv yere, sche repared the bakhous an inheyned 
[heightened] it and new lyngthde it, which cost x marc. And in the 
same yere she heyned the stepul and new rofyd it and leyde therupon 
a fodyr of led whiche led, freston, tymbur and werkmanshipe cost 
X pounde. Also in the same yere sche made the cloystir on the Northe 
svde and slattyd it, and the wal be the stepul, which cost viij li. 

Then she began her greatest work, after the building of the 
church : 

Also in the xvj yere of the occupacion of the same prioresse (1435) 
the dortoure that than was, as fer forthe as we knoWe, the furste 
that was set up on the place, was at so grete mischeef and at the 
gate-downe [faUing down], the Prioresse dredyinge perisschyng of 
her sistres whiche lay thereinne took it downe for drede of more 
harmys and no more was doon thereto that yere, but a mason he 
wande^ with hise prentise, and in that same yere the same prioresse 
made the htU soler on the sowthe ende of here chaumber stondyng 
in to the paradise, and the wal stondinge on the weste syde of the 
halle, with the lityl chaumber stondynge on the southe syde, and the 
Myllehouse with alle the small houses dependynge there upon, the 
Carthouse, and the Torfehouse, and ij of stabulys and a Beerne 
stondynge at a tenauntry of oure on the Southe syde of Nycolas 
Martyn. Alle these werkys of this yere with the repare drewe iiij 
skore mark. In the xvij yere of the same Prioresse, be the help of 
God and of goode cristen men sche began the grounde of the same 
dortoure that now stondith, and wrought thereupon fulli vij yere 
betymes as God wolde sende hir good. 

In the twenty-fourth year of her reign Joan Wiggenhall saw 
the last stone laid in its place and the last plank nailed. The 
future was hid from her happy eyes; she could not foresee the 
day, scarcely a century later, when the walls she had reared so 
carefully should stand empty and forlorn, and the molten lead 
of the roof should be sold by impious men. She must have said 

1 Mr Coulton suggests the reading ' a mason hewande,' i.e. a hard-hewer 
or rough hewer, as opposed to the better freemason. 


with Solomon, as she looked upon her great church, "I have 
surely built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee 
to abide in for ever"; and no flash of tragic prescience showed 
her the sheep feeding peacefully over the spot where its "heyned 
stepul" pointed to the sky. In 1451 she departed to the heaven 
she knew best, a house of many mansions; and her nuns, who 
for four and twenty years had lived a proud but uncomfortable 
life in clouds of sawdust and unending noise, buried her (one 
hopes) under a seemly brass in her church. 

The mind preserves a pleasant picture of Euphemia of Wher- 

well and of Joan Wiggenhall, when Margaret Wavere, Eleanor 

of Arden, Isabel Hermyte and the rest are only dark memories, 

not willingly recalled. Which is as it should be. The typical 

prioress of the middle ages, however, was neither Euphemia nor 

Margaret. As one sees her, after wading through some hundred 

and fifty visitation reports or injunctions, she was a weU-meaning 

lady, doing her best to make two ends of an inadequate income 

meet, but not always provident ; ready for a round sum in hand 

to make leases, sell corrodies, cut down woods and to burden 

her successor as her predecessor had burdened her. She found 

it difficult to carry out the democratic ideal of convent life in 

consulting her sisters upon matters of business; she knew, like 

all rulers, the temptation to be an autocrat; it was so much 

quicker and easier to do things herself: "What, shulde the 

yong nunnes gyfe voices? Tushe, they shulde not gyfe 

voices!" So she kept the common seal and hardly ever 

rendered an account. She found that her position gave her 

the opportunity to escape sometimes from that common hfe, 

which is so trying to the temper; and she did not always keep 

the dorter and the frater as she should. She was rarely vicious, 

but nearly always worldly; she could not resist silks and furs, 

little dogs such as the ladies who came to stay in her guest-room 

cherished, and frequent visits to her friends. When she was a 

strong character the condition of her house bore witness, for 

good or evil, to her strength; when she was weak disorder was 

sure to follow. Very often she won a contented "omnia bene" 

from her nuns, when the Bishop came ; at other times, she said 

that they were disobedient and they said that she was harsh, or 

impotent, or addicted to favourites. In the end it is to Chaucer 


that we turn for her picture; as the Bishops found her, so he 
saw her, aristocratic, tender-hearted, worldly, taking pains to 
" countrefete chere of court," smiling " ful simple and coy " above 
her well-pinched wimple; a lady of importance, attended by a 
nun and three priests, spoken to with respect and reverence by 
the not too mealy-mouthed host (no "by Corpus Dominus," 
or " cokkes bones," or " tel on a devel way ! " for her, but " cometh 
neer my lady prioresse," and " my lady prioresse, by your leve ") ; 
clearly enjoying a night at the Tabard and some unseemly 
stories on the road (though her own tale was exquisite and fitting 
to her state). Religious? perhaps; but save for her singing the 
divine service " entuned in her nose ful semely " and for her lovely 
address to the Virgin, Chaucer can find but little to say on the 
point : 

But for to speken of hir conscience 
She was so charitable and so pitous — 

that she would weep over a mouse in a trap or a beaten puppy ! 
For charity and pity we must go to the poor Parson, not to friar 
or monk or nun. A good ruler of her house? doubtless ; but when 
Chaucer met her the house was ruling itself somewhere at the 
"shires ende." The world was full of fish out of water in the 
fourteenth century, and, by seynt Loy, Madame Eglentyne (like 
Dan Piers) held a certain famous text "nat worth an oistre." 
So we take our leave of her — characteristically, on the road to 


Tomorrows shall be as yesterdays ; 
And so for ever ! saints enough 
Has Holy Church for priests to praise; 

But the chief of saints for workday stuff 
Afield or at board is good Saint Use, 
Withal his service is rank and rough ; 

Nor hath he altar nor altar-dues, 

Nor boy with bell, nor psalmodies, 
Nor folk on benches, nor family pews. 

Maurice Hewlett, The Song of the Plow. 

In many ways the most valuable general account of monastic 
property at the close of the middle ages is to be found in the 
great Valor Ecdesiasticus, a survej' of all the property of the 
church, compiled in 1535 for the assessment of the tenth lately 
appropriated by the King^ It is true that only 100 out of the 
126 nunneries then in existence are described with any detail 
and that the amount of detail given varies very much for dif- 
ferent localities. Nevertheless the record is of the highest im- 
portance, for in order to assess the tax the gross income of each 
house is given (often with the sources from which it is drawn, 

^ The Valor Ecdesiasticus was published in six volumes by the Record 
Commission (1810-34). It is the subject of a detailed study by Professor 
Alexander Savine, "English Monasteries on the Eve of the Suppression," 
in Oxford Studies in Social and Legal History, ed. Vinogradoff, vol. 1(1909). 
For this reason, and also because of their greater interest, I have preferred 
to base my study of nunnery finance on the account rolls of the nuns. The 
Valor as it affects nunneries has been largely drawn upon in an unpublished 
thesis by Miss H. T. Jacka, The Dissolution of the English Nunneries, Thesis 
submitted for the Degree of M.A. in the University of London (Dec. 1917). 
It is a pity that this useful little work is not published. I have been able to 
consult it and have made use (as will be seen from footnotes to this chapter) 
of the admirable chapter 11 on "The Property of the Nunneries"; for my 
quotations from the Valor I have invariably used her analysis. Anyone 
wishing for an intensive study of the Dissolution from the point of view of 
monastic houses for women cannot do better than consult this thesis, 
which is far more detailed, exact and judicial in tone than any other modern 


classified as temporalities and spiritualities) and the net income, 
on which the tenth was assessed, is obtained by subtracting from 
the gross income all the necessary charges upon the house, 
payments of synodals and procurations, rents due to superior 
lords, alms and obits which had to be maintained under the will 
of benefactors, and the fees of the regular receivers, baihffs, 
auditors and stewards. 

Such a survey as the Valor Ecclesiasticus, though valuable, 
could not by its nature give more than the most general indica- 
tion of the main classes of receipts and expenditure of the 
nunneries. The accounts kept by the nuns themselves, on the 
other hand, are a mine of detailed information on these subjects. 
Every convent was supposed to draw up an annual balance 
sheet, to be read before the nuns assembled in chapter, and 
though it was a constant source of complaint against the head 
of a house that she failed to do so, nevertheless enough rolls 
have survived to make it clear that the practice was common. 
Indeed it would have been impossible to run a community for 
long without keeping accounts. The finest set of these rolls which 
has survived from a medieval nunnery is that of St Michael's 
Stamford, in Northamptonshire 1. There are twenty-four rolls, 
beginning with one for the year 32-3 Edward I, and ranging 
over the greater part of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. 
A study of them enables the material life of the convent for two 
centuries to be reconstructed and gives a vivid picture of its 
difiiculties, for though the nuns only once ended the year without 
a deficit and a list of debts, yet the debts owed by various 
creditors to them were often larger than those which they owed. 

A very good series also exists for St Mary de Pre, near 
St Albans, kept by the wardens 1341-57 and by the Prioress 
1461-932; and there is in the Record Office a valuable little book 
of accounts kept by the treasuresses of Gracedieu (Belton) during 
the years 1414-18, which has been made famihar to many readers 
by the use made of it by Cardinal Gasquet in English Monastic 

> P.R.O. Mins. Accis. 1260. 

2 The wardens' accounts are in P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 867/21-6 and the 
prioress's accounts, ib. 867/30, 32, 33-36. and Hen. VII, no. 274. They are 
briefly described in V.C.H. Herts, iv, pp. 430-1 (notes 30, 31, 39). An 
excellent prioress's account for 2-4 Hen. VII is printed by Dugdale, Mon. in, 
pp. 358-61, the prioress being Christian Bassett. 

P.N. ? 


Life^. Very full and interesting accounts have also survived from 
St Radegund's Cambridge (1449-51, 1481-2)2, Catesby (1414- 
45)3 and Swaffham Bulbeck (1483-4)*. These are all prioresses' 
or treasuresses' accounts of the total expenditure of the different 
houses; but there are in existence also a few obedientiaries' 
accounts, chambresses' accounts from St Michael's Stamford and 
Syon and ceUaresses' accounts from Syon^. An analysis of these 
accounts shows, better than any other means of information, the 
various sources from which a medieval nunnery drew its income, 
and the chief classes of expenditure which it had to meet. It 
will therefore be illuminating to consider in turn the credit and 
debit side of a monastic balance sheet. 

It is perhaps unnecessary to postulate that since monastic 
houses differed greatly in size and wealth, the sources of their 
income would differ accordingly. A very poor house might be 
dependent upon the rents and produce of one small manor; a 
large house sometimes had estates all over England. The entire 
income of Rothwell in Northamptonshire was derived from one 
appropriated rectory, valued in the Valor at £10. los. <\d. gross 
and at £5 . 19s. M. net per annum ^. The Black Ladies of Brewood 
(Staffs.) had an income of £11. is. (>d. derived from demesne in 
hand, rents and alms'. On the other hand Dartford in Kent 
held lands in Kent, Surrey, Norfolk, Suffolk, Wiltshire, Wales 
and London 8, the Minoresses without Aldgate held property in 
London, Hertfordshire, Kent, Berkshire, Staffordshire, Derby- 
shire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Norfolk and the Isle of 
Wight 8. The splendid Abbey of Syon held land as far afield as 
Lancashire and Cornwall, scattered over twelve counties i". Simi- 
larly the proportionate income derived from house-rents and 
land-rents would differ with the geographical situation of the 
nunnery. London convents, for instance, would draw a large 

' P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1257/10. See Gasquet, Eng. Monastic Life, 
pp. 158-176. 

^ A. Gray, Priory of St Radegund's, Cambridge, pp. 145-85. 

' Baker, Hist, and Antiq. of Northants. i, pp. 278-83. Compare P. i?.0. 
Mins. Accts. 1257/1 for a Catesby account roll for 11— 14 Hen. IV. 

* Dugdale, Mon. iv, pp. 458-60. See also P.R.O. iz^jjz for Denney, 
14 Hen. IV-i Hen. V. 

' See Ch. iv, passim. 

* Valor Eccles. rv, p. 302. ' lb. in, p. 103. 

* lb. I, p. 119. 8 Ih. I, p. 397, 
1° lb. I, p. 424. 


income from streets of houses, whereas a house in the distant 
dales of Yorkshire would be dependent upon agriculture. At 
the time of the Valor twenty-two nunneries were holding 
urban tenements in fifteen towns, amounting in total value to 
£1076. OS. yd., but of this sum £969. iis. 10^. was held by the 
seven houses in London^- With this proviso the conclusion may 
be laid down that the money derived from the possession of agri- 
cultural land, and in particular the rents paid by tenants in 
freehold, copyhold, customary and leasehold land, was the main- 
stay of the income paid into the hands of the treasuress. 

A word may perhaps be said as to the method by which the 
nuns administered their estates. Miss Jacka distinguishes two 
main types of administration, discernible in the Valor: 

The London houses, except Syon and a number, chiefly, of the smaller 
nunneries scattered throughout the country, had a single staff of 
of&cials, steward, baiLifE, auditor, receiver; their revenues were drawn 
from scattered rents and other profits rather than from entire manors. 
There seem to have been about forty houses of this type in addition 
to the London houses. The second group comprises the great country 
nunneries in the south of England, including Syon and a number of 
smaller houses whose revenues were reckoned under the headings 
of various manors each managed by its own bailiff — The staff of 
Syon may be taken as an unusually complete and elaborate example 
of the usual system, whose principle appears worked out on a smaller 
scale, in the case of smaller nunneries. The nuns had in the first place 
what may be called a central staff, a steward at £3. 6s. 8d., a steward 
of the hospice at £2-^. 15s. ^d., a general receiver at ;£r9. 13s. ^d. and 
an auditor at ^^8. 35. /^d. Their lands in Middlesex were managed by 
their steward of Isleworth, Lord Wyndesore, whose fee was £-i, a 
steward of courts at ;^i and a bailiff a,t£2.-iy.^d., who had a separate 
fee of 13s. j^d. as baiUff of the chapel of the Angels at Brentford. Their 
extensive possessions in Sussex were managed by a receiver and a 
steward of courts for the whole county, whose fees were ;^3 and £z 
respectively, by four stewards for various districts with fees from 
£1. 6s. M. down to 13s. /^d. and by 13 bailiffs arranged under the 
stewards, of whom one received £2. 3s. ^d. and the rest from £1 to 
6s. M. Their one manor in Cambridgeshire was managed by a steward 
at 13s. ^d. and a baihff at £1. With the central staff was reckoned 
a receiver for Somerset, Dorset and Devon, whose fee was £6. 135. ^d. ; 
the ladies held no temporaUties in Somerset; in Dorset they had a 
chief steward, £1. 6s. 8d., a steward of courts, 6s. 8d., and a bailiff, 
IIS., and their large possessions in Devon were managed by two 
stewards {£2. 13s. 4^.), two stewards of courts (13s. 4^., 6s. 8d.), six 

1 Jacka, op. cit. i. 44. 



bailiffs, with fees ranging from 4s. to £2 and an auditor, 3s. ia,d. They 
received ;^ioo a year from unspecified holdings in Lancashire and had 
there a steward of courts at £\. Their possessions in Lincolnshire 
were mainly spiritual, but they employed a receiver, whose fee was 
135. A,d. In Gloucestershire they had large possessions. The two chief 
stewards of Cheltenham received each £^. 6s. M. and the chief steward 
of Minchinhampton {^2. Two stewards of courts each received;^! . 6s. M. 
and the two stewards at Slaughter l\. Three bailiffs received 
{p.. 13s. \d., £2 and 13s. j,d., with hvery. A bailiff and receiver of 
profits arising from the sale of woods was paid ;^4 and the steward 
of the abbot of Cirencester was paid 6s. M. for holding the abbess' 
view of frankpledge. In Wiltshire the nuns held a manor and a rectory 
and paid £1 to a steward for both: fhey seem to have been leased. 
In counties where all their possessions were spiritual they had no 
local officials; in Somerset both the rectories they held were leased 
and in Kent, although that is not stated, it is suggested by the round 
sums which were received (£2(). 13s. ^d., £10, ;£2o). The leasing of 
property for a fixed sum of course made the administration of it very 
much simpler. All the temporalities of the Minoresses without Aldgate 
were leased and their staff consisted of a chief steward. Lord Wynde- 
sore, whose fee was £2. 13s. 4^., a receiver at £^. 5s. lod. and an 
auditor at 13s. 4«^.* 

A closer analysis of the chief sources of income of a medieval 
nunnery, as they may be distinguished in the Valor and in 
various account rolls, is now possible. They may be classified 
as follows: Temporalities, comprising: (i) rents from lands and 
houses, (2) perquisites of courts, fairs, mills, woods and other 
manorial perquisites, (3) issues of the manor, i.e. sale of farm 
produce, (4) miscellaneous payments from boarders, gifts, etc.; 
and Spiritualities, comprising (5) tithes from appropriated bene- 
fices, alms, mortuaries, etc. The distinction between temporalities 
and spiritualities is a technical one and there was sometimes little 
difference between the sources of the two kinds of income, but 
the temporal revenues were usually larger^. 

(i) Rents from lands and houses. A house which possessed 
several manors besides its home farm would either lease them 
to tenants ("farm out the manor" as it was called), or put in 
bailiffs, who were responsible for working the estates and handing 
over to the convent the profits of their agriculture, and who may 
also have collected rents where no separate rent collector was 

' Jacka, op. cit. ff. 27, 29-30. The information about Syon and the 
Minoresses is taken from Valor Eccles. i, p. 424 and i, p. 397 respectively. 
^ See Jacka, op. cit. i. 25. 



employed. For besides the profits arising from the demesne 
land (of which some account will be given below), the convent 
derived a much more considerable income from the rents of all 
tenants (whatever the legal tenure by which they held) who 
held their land at a money rent. The number of such tenants 
was hkely to increase by the commutation of customary services 
for money payments; since, except in the particular manor 
or manors wherein the produce of the demesne was reserved 
for the actual consumption of the community, it was to the 
interest of a convent to lease a great part of the demesne land 
to tenants at a money rent and so save itself the trouble of 
farming the land under a baihffi. In addition to these rents 
from agricultural land an income was sometimes derived, 
as has already been pointed out, from the rent of tenements 
in towns. 

In most account roUs a careful distinction was drawn between 
"rents of assize" and "farms." The former were the payments 
due from the tenants (whether freehold or customary) who held 
their holdings at a money rent; these rents were collected by 

^ If the demesne land were let out in farm the customary ploughing 
and other services of the villeins would no longer be needed and if only a 
portion of it were so farmed the number of villein services required would 
be proportionately less. This, as well as the increasing employment of hired 
labour on the demesne during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, ac- 
counts for the item " Sale of Works " which appears in the Romsey account 
for 1412. Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, p. 194. From another point 
of view the number of rent-payers was increased by the fact that both free 
and unfree tenants could rent pieces of the demesne. As to the farming of 
the demesne, note however the conclusion to which Miss Jacka comes from 
a study of the Valor and the Dissolution Surveys now in the Augmentation 
Office: "The question 'to what extent did the nuns in 1535 farm their 
demesnes?' cannot be confidently answered on the evidence of any of the 
records before us. Apart from the fact that in many cases there is no state- 
ment at all, the word 'firma' or 'farm' is used so ambiguously that even 

where it occurs it is impossible to be certain that a lease existed There 

are, of course, unmistakeable cases in which the demesnes were farmed: 
Tarrant Keynes kept in hand the demesnes of 3 manors and farmed that of 7 : 
Shaftesbury occupied the demesne of one manor and farmed that of 18 
{Valor Eccles. i, pp. 265, 276). But in none of the few cases in which the 
whole of the demesne is described as yielding a 'firma,' should we be justi- 
fied, in view of the several uses of the word, in asserting that it had the 
definite character of a lease. That is to say, whatever may be our suspicions, 
the evidence before us does not warrant the assertion that in a single case 
did the nuns farm the whole of their demesnes : and this conclusion is an 
unexpected and remarkable one, for we might well expect them to be 
among the first land holders who seized this method of simplifying their 
manorial economy." Jacka, op. cit. t. 47. 


the different collectors of the nunnery or brought to the treasurer 
by the tenants themselves. "Farms" were leases, i.e. payment 
for land or houses which were held directly in demesne by th' 
nunnery, but instead of being worked by a baihff, or occupie( 
by the household, were "farmed out" at an annual rent. I 
"farmer" might thus hold in farm an entire manor, and, for th( 
payment of an annual sum to the nuns, he would have the righ- 
to the produce of the demesne and to the rents of rent-payinj 
tenants. He might be quite a small person and hold in fam 
only a few acres of the demesne (in addition perhaps to ar 
ordinary tenant's holding on the manor). He might hold th( 
farm of a miU, or a stable, or a single house^- In any case he 
paid a rent to the nuns and made what he could out of his ' ' farm " 
while they much preferred these regular payments to the trouble 
of superintending the cultivation of distant lands, in an age wher 
communication was difficult and slow. 

Nevertheless the rents were not always easy to collect, foi 
all the diligence of the baihff and of the various rent-collectors ^ 

^ In the account roll of Dame Christian Bassett, Prioress of Delapr^ 
(St Albans) for 2-4 Hen. VII, the "rente fermys" range between Ij fron 
Robert Pegge for the farm of the whole manor of Pray, to 2s. received from 
Richard Franklin "for the ferme of vj acres of londe in Bacheworth": 
one John Shon pays 65. ?>d. "for the ferme of certeyne londs in Bachewortl 
and ij tenements in Seint Mighell strete with a lyme kylne"; Richarc 
Ordeway pays 10s. for rent farm of "an hous w'in the Pray" and Roberi 
Pegge 8s. for rent farm of "an hous and a stable w'in Praygate." Dugdale 
Mon. Ill, pp. 358-9. In this account her assize rents amount to £1. 11s. zd 
within the town of St Albans and her rents farm to £4. 13s. id.; while out- 
side the town the rents of assize amount to £2.. 5s. od. and the rents farn: 
to £i\. 19s. Sd., while four items amounting to £1. 19s. lid. are doubtful 
but probably represent farms. That is to say very nearly three quarters oi 
the lands and houses belonging to Delapr^ were farmed out, and if we except 
pajonents from the town of St Albans, which were probably house-rents, 
over four-fifths of its possessions were in farm. Similarly in the account rol 
of Margaret Ratclyff, Prioress of Swaffham, for 22 Ed. IV. the rents an 
classified as Redditus Assise {£6. os. ^d. in all), Firma Terrae (£i'i. os. 3W 
in all) and Firma Molendini, the farm of a mill (£1. 14s, 4^.). lb. iv, p. 459 

^ References to money paid in fees to rent-collectors, or in gratuities 
to men who had brought rents up to the house often occur in account rolls, 
e.g. in the Catesby roll for 1414-15, "Also in expenses of collecting rents 
wheresoever to be collected. ..xbcs, Also paid to divers receivers of rent 
for the time viijs. wu]d." Baker, Hist, of Northants. 1, p. 280. In the 
Delapr6 account of 2-4 Hen. IV, "Item paid to a man that brought money 
from Cambryg for a rewarde viijt^. Item for dyvers men y' brought in 
their rent at dyvers tymes xxs. i]d." Dugdale, Mon. iii, p. 359. In the 
St Radegund's Cambridge account of 1449-51, "In the expenses of Thomas 
Key (xvijd. ob.) at Abyngton, Litlyngton, Whaddou, Crawden, Bumpsted 


There are some illuminating entries in the accounts of St Rade- 
gund's Cambridge. In 1449-50 the indignant treasuress debits 
herself with "one tenement in Walleslane lately held by John 
Walsheman for 6s. id. a year, the which John fled out of this 
town within the first half of this year, leaving nought behind 
him whereby he could be distrained save jd., collected there- 
from"; and in the following year she again debits herself "for 
part of a tenement lately held by John Webster for 12s. a year, 
whence was collected only 7s. for that the aforesaid John 
Webster did flit [literally, devolavit] by night, leaving naught 
behind him whereby he could be distrained." Yet these nuns 
seem to have been indulgent landlords ; in this year the treasuress 
debits herself " for a tenement lately held by Richard Pyghtesley, 
because it was too heavily charged before, 2s. ^d.,. . .and for 
a portion of the rent owed by Stephen Brasyer on account of the 
poverty and need of the said Stephen, by grace of the lady 
Prioress this time only, i^d." and there are other instances of 
lowered rents in these accounts^ Other account rolls sometimes 
make mention of meals and small presents of money given to 
tenants bringing in their rents. 

(2) Various manorial perquisites and grants. Besides the rents 
from land and houses the position of a religious community as 
lord of a manor gave it the right to various other financial 
payments. Of these the most important were the perquisites of 
the manorial courts. These varied very much according to the 
extent and number of the Uberties which had been granted to 
any particular house. To Syon, beloved of kings, vast liberties 
had been granted (notably in 1447), so that the tenants upon its 
estates were almost entirely exempt from royal justice. The 
abbess and convent had 

view of frankpledge, leets, lawe-days and wapentakes for all people, 
tenants resiant and other resiants aforesaid, in whatsoever places, 
by the same abbess or her successors to be limited, where to them it 
shall seem most expedient within the lordships, lands, rents, fees 
and possessions aforesaid, to be holden by the steward or other officers. 

and Cambridge for the business of the lady (prioress) and for levying rent... 
and in the stipend of Thomas Key collecting rents in Cambridge and the 
district this year xiiis. m]d." Gray, Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge, 

PP- 173-4- 

1 Gray, op. cit. pp. 148, 164. 


They had the assizes of bread and ale and wine and victuals and 
weights and measures. They had all the old traditional emolu- 
ments of justice, which lords had striven to obtain since the days 
before the conquest, 

soc, sac, infangentheof, outfangentheof, waif, estray, treasure-trove, 
wreck of the sea, deodands, chattels of felons and fugitives, of outlaws, 
of waive, of persons condemned, of felons of themselves [suicides], 
escapes of felons, year da)r waste and estrepement and all other 
commodities, forfeitures and profits whatsoever. 

They had the right to erect gallows, pillory and tumbrel for the 
punishment of malefactors. They even had 

all issues and amercements, redemptions and forfeitures as well 
before our [the king's] heirs and successors, as before the chancellor, 
treasurer and barons of our exchequer, the justices and commissioners 
of us, our heirs or successors whomsoever, made, forfeited or adjudged 
...of all the people... in the lordships, lands, tenements, fees and 
possessions aforesaid ^ 

In the eyes of the middle ages justice had one outstanding 
characteristic: it filled the pocket of whoever administered it. 
" Justitia magnum emolumentum est," as the phrase went. AU 
the manifold perquisites of justice, whether administered in her 
own or in the royal courts, went to the abbess of Syon if any 
of her own tenants were concerned. It is no wonder that out 
of a total income of £1944. lis. 5jrf. the substantial sum of 
£133. OS. 6d. was derived from perquisites of courts- 
Few houses possessed such wholesale exemption from royal 
justice, but all possessed their manorial courts, at which tenants 
paid their heriots in money or in kind as a death-duty to the lord, 
or their hues on entering upon land, and at which justice was 
done and offenders amerced (or fined as we should now call it). 
Most houses possessed the right to hold the assize of bread and 
ale and to fine alewives who overcharged or gave short measure. 
Some possessed the right to seize the chattels of fugitives, and 
the abbess of Wherwell was once involved in a law suit over 

' See for a translation of the whole charter, Aungier, Hist, of Syon, 
pp. 60-67. The original is given ib. pp. 411-8 

' See the valuation of Syon Monastery, a.d. 1534. translated from the 
Valor Ecclesiasticus, ib. pp. 439-450. At Romsey in 1412 the perquisites 
of courts brought in a total 01/^14 out of an annual income of £404. 6s. o^d., 
made up of the rents and farms, sale of works, sale of farm produce and 
perquisites of courts on six manors. Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey , p. 194. 


this liberty, which she held in the hundred of Mestowe and 
which was disputed by the crown officials. One Henry Harold 
of Wherwell had killed his wife Isabel and fled to the church 
of Wherwell and the Abbess had seized his chattels to the value 
of £25. 4s. 8d. by the hands of her reeved. A less usual privilege 
was that of the Abbess of Marham, who possessed the right of 
proving the wills of those who died within the precincts or 
jurisdiction of the house ^- The courts at which these liberties 
were exercised were held by the steward of the nunnery, who 
went from manor to manor to preside at their sittings; but 
sometimes the head of the house herself would accompany 
him. Christian Bassett, the energetic Prioress of Delapre (St 
Albans), not content with journeying up to London for a law- 
suit, went twice to preside at her court at Wing^. 

In rather a different class from grants of jurisdictional liberties 
were special grants of free warren, felling of wood and fairs. 
Monasteries which possessed lands within the bounds of a royal 
forest were not allowed to take game or to cut down wood there 
without a special licence from the crown; but such grants to 
exercise "free warren" (i.e. take game) and to fell wood were 
often granted in perpetuity, as an act of piety by the king, or 
for special purposes. The Abbess of Syon had free warren in all 
her possessions, and in 1489 it was recorded that the Abbess of 
Barking had free chase within the bailiwick of Hainault to hunt 
all beasts of the forest in season, except deer, and free chase 
within the forest and without to hunt hares and rabbits and fox, 
badger, cat and other vermin *. Grants of wood were more often 
made on special occasions; thus in 1277 the keeper of the forest 
of Essex was ordered to permit the Abbess of Barking and her 
men to fell oak-trees and oak-trunks in her demesne woods 
within the forest to the value of £40 ^ while in 1299 the Abbess 
of Wilton was given leave to fell sixty oaks in her own wood 
within the bounds of the forest of Savernake, in order to rebuild 

' V.C.H. Hants. 11, p. 135. 

' V.C.H. Norfolk, II, p. 370. So apparently had the Prioress of Carrow. 
Rye, Carrow Abbey, p. 21. 

' See p. 70 above. Compare the Catesby roll for 1414-15. "And in the 
expenses of the steward at the court this year and at other times vis. viiid." 
Baker, Hisf. and Antiq. of Northants. i, p. 280. 

< V.C.H. Essex, 11, p."ii8, 

5 Cal. of Close Ralls, 1272-9, p. 392. 


some of her houses, which had been burnt down^. The grant of 
fairs and markets was even more common and more lucrative, 
for the convent profited not only from the rents of booths and 
from the entrance-tolls, but not infrequently from setting up 
a stall of its own, for the sale of spices and other produce^. 
Henry III granted the nuns of Catesby a weekly market every 
Monday within their manor of Catesby and a yearly fair for three 
days in the same place; and almost any monastic chartulary will 
provide other instances of such rights'. 

The majority of the special perquisites which have been de- 
scribed would originate in special grants from the Crown ; but it 
must be remembered that every manorial lord could count on 
certain perquisites ex officio, for which no specific grant was re- 
quired. For his manor provided him with more than agricultural 
produce on the one hand and rents and farms on the other. 
Through the manor court he also received certain payments 
due to him from all free and ^nfree tenants, in particular those 
connected with the transfer of land, the heriot and the fines 
already mentioned. From unfree tenants he could also claim 
various other dues, the mark of their status; merchet, when 
their daughters married off the estate, leyrwite, when they en- 
joyed themselves without the intermediary of that important 
ceremony, a fine when they wished to send their sons to school 

1 Cal. oj Close Rolls, 1296— 1302, p. 238. 

''■ In the account of the Prioress of Delapr6 already quoted occurs the 
item "Receyvid for ij standyngs at Prayffayre at ij tymes vs." Dugdale, 
Mon. Ill, p. 359. The fair time was the feast of the Nativity of the B.V.M. 
(Sept. 8th) and the account for another year shows that over £1 was spent 
on the convent and visitors at this time. The accounts for 1490-3 include 
payments for making trestles and forms in connection with the fair. 
V .C.H. Herts, iv, p. 430 (note 31) and p. 439 (note 39). The nuns of St Rade- 
gund's, Cambridge, were granted by Stephen a fair, which was afterwards 
known as Garlick fair, and was held in their church-yard for two days on 
August 14th and 15th. They did not receive much from it; in 1449 the tolls 
amounted only to 5s. -zd.; moreover they had to give the toll collectors 
6d. for a wage and they evidently made the occasion one for entertainment, 
for they hired an e.xtra cook for 3^. "to help in the kitchin at the fair time." 
Gray, Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge, pp. 49—50. 

' The Valor Eccles. occasionally notes income derived from fairs. 
Tarrant Keynes had ^2 from the fair at Woodburyhill, Shaftesbury had 
£2. 4s. dd. from Shaftesbury fair. Mailing received l^. 6s. 8d. from MalUng 
market and fair and ;^3 from amarket "cum terris et tenementis " at Newheth, 
Blackborough had £1 from Blackborough fair and Elstow had £'j. 12s. od. 
from ElstoW fair. Valor Eccles. 1, pp. 265, 276, 106; 11, p. 205; ni, p. 395; 
IV, p. 188. 


nd a number of other customary payments, exacted at the 
lanor court and varying shghtly from manor to manor. More- 
ver the tolls from the water- or wind-mill at which villeins had 
grind their corn all went to swell the purse of the lord^. This 
; not the place for a detailed description of manorial rights, 
'hich can be studied in any text-book of economic history 2; a 
'ord must, however, be said about the mortuary system, which 
id not a little to enrich the medieval church. 

When a peasant died the lord of the manor had often the 
ight to claim his best animal or garment as a mortuary or 
eriot, and by degrees there grew up a similar claim to his 
3Cond best possession on the part of the parish priest. 

It was presumed," says Mr Coulton, " that the dead man must have 
liled to some extent in due payment of tithes during his lifetime 
nd that a gift of his second best possession to the Church would 
lerefore be most salutary to his soul"^. 

rom these claims, partly manorial and partly ecclesiastical, 
;Ugious houses benefited very greatly, and their accounts some- 
mes mention mortuary payments. The Prioress of Catesby in 
le year 1414-15 records how her hve stock was enriched by 
ae horse, one mare and two cows coming as heriots, while she 
^ceived a payment of 20s. for two oxen coming as heriot of 
ichard Sheperd* In the chartulary of Marham is recorded a 
lortuary list of sixteen people, who died within the jurisdiction 
[ the house, and the mortuaries vary from a sorrel horse and 
book to numerous gowns and mantles 5. The system was 

^ The mill belonging to the home farm would be in the charge of a miller, 
bo was one of the hired servants of the house and was paid a regular stipend, 
ther mills would probably be farmed out. The nuns of Catesby had two 
ills, which brought them in 12s, and 22s. a year respectively; one, a wind- 
ill, was probably farmed, but the water-mill was in charge of Thomas 
ilner, at a wage of 205. and his servant, who was paid is. dd. The nuns 
30 received tolls of grain in kind from the mill; a certain proportion of 
lich was handed over to the miller for his household. The mill does not 
em to have paid very well, foraheavy list of "Costs of the Mill," amounting 

3IS. bd. appears in the account; it includes the wages of the miller and 
3 boy and payments to a carpenter for making the mill-wheel for seventeen 
,ys and in damming the mill-tail and bujang shoes with nails for the mill 
irses. Baker, op. cit. 1, pp. 279, 281. At Swaffham Bulbeck the "Firma 
3lendini" brought in £3. 14s. 4d. Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 457. MaUing 
5bey had a fulling-mill. Valor Eccles. i, p. 276. 

2 For instance in Hone, The Manor and Manorial Records (1906). 

' Coulton, Med. Gam. p. 591. 

* Baker, op. cit. 1, pp. 279, 282. ^ V.C.H. Norfolk, 11, p. 370, 


obviously capable of great abuse, and Mr Coulton considers that 
it did much to precipitate the Reformation, for the unhappy 
peasant resented more and more bitterly the greed of the church, 
which chose his hour of sorrow to wrest from him the best of his 
poor possessions ; it must have seemed hard to him that his horse 
or his ox should be driven away, if he could not buy it back, 
to the well-stocked farm of a community which was vowed to 
poverty, far harder than if his lord were a layman, as free as he 
was himself to accumulate possessions without soihng the soul. 
When the parish priest followed the convent with a claim upon 
what was best, his despair must have grown deeper and his 
resentment more bitter. It was often difficult to coUect these 
payments, just as it was often difficult to collect tithes, even 
when a priest was less loth to curse for them than Chaucer's 
poor parson. Vicars were obhged to sue their wretched parishioners 
in the ecclesiastical courts, and monasteries were sometimes fain 
to commute such payments for an annual rent, collected by the 
tenants^. But the best ecclesiastics recognised that the system 
was somewhat out of keeping with Christian charity. Caesarius 
of Heisterbach has a story of Ulrich, the good head of the 
monastery of Steinfeld, who one day 

came to one of his granges, wherein, seeing a comely foal, he enquired 
of the [lay] brother whose it was or whence it came. To whom the 
brother answered, " such and such a man, our good and faithful 
friend, left it to us at his death." "By pure devotion," asked the 
provost, "or by legal compulsion?" "It came through his death," 
answered the other, "for his wife, since he was one of our serfs, 
offered it as a heriot." Then the provost shook his head and piously 
answered: "Because he was a good man and our faithful friend, 
therefore hast thou despoiled his wife." Render therefore her horse 
to this forlorn woman; for it is robbery to seize or detain other men's 
goods, since the horse was not thine before [the man's death]"-. 

1 For examples of mortuary law-suits, receipts and results, see Coulton, 
Med. Gam. pp. 561-6. On the whole subject of mortuaries and the un- 
popularity which they entailed upon the church, see Coulton, Medieval 
Studies, no. 8 ("Priests and People before the Reformation," pp. 3-7). 

2 Translated in Coulton, Med. Gam. p. 323. Compare another of Caesar- 
ius' tales of the usurer who was taken by the devil through various places 
of torment: "There also he saw a certain honest knight lately dead, Elias 
von Rheineck, castellan of Horst, seated on a mad cow with his face towards 
her tail and his back to her horns ; the beast rushed to and fro, goring his 
back every moment so that the blood rushed forth. To whom the usurer 
said, 'Lord, why suffer ye this paid?' 'This cow,' replied the knight. 


(3) Issues of the manor. Before passing on to sources of 
income of a more specifically ecclesiastical character, some ac- 
count must be given of the third great class of receipts which 
came to a convent in its capacity of landowner, to wit the "issues 
of the manor." Attached to almost every nunnery was its home 
farm, which provided the nuns with the greater part of their 
food'^. A large nunnery would thus reserve for its own use several 
manors and granges, but usually other manors in its possession 
would be farmed by bailiffs, who sold the produce at market 
andpaidin the profits to the treasuress or to one of the obedienti- 
aries; or else a manor would be leased to a tenant. The surplus 
produce of the home farm, which could not be used by the nuns, 
was also sold. The treasuress usually entered the receipts and 
expenditure of the home farm in her household account and she 
had to keep two sets of records, the one a careful account of all 
the animals and agricultural produce on the farm, with details 
as to the use made of them; and the other (under the heading 
of "issues of the manor") a money record of the sums obtained 
from sales of live stock, wool or grain. An analysis of the 
produce of the home farm of Catesby (1414-5)^ shows that the 
chief crops grown were wheat and barley. Of these a certain 
proportion was kept for seed to sow the new crops; almost all 
the rest of the wheat was paid in food allowances to the servants 
and I qr. 3 bushels in alms "to friars of the four orders and 
other poor"; most of the barley was malted, except 6 qrs. 
delivered to the swineherd to feed hogs ; and what remained was 
stored in the granaries of the convent. Oats and peas were also 
grown and part of the crop used for seed, part for food-allowances 
to the servants and oatmeal for the nuns. The Prioress also kept 
a most meticulous account of the livestock on her farm. All 
were numbered and classified, cart-horses, brood-mares, colts, 
foals, oxen, bulls, cows, stirks (three-year old), two-year old, 

' I tore mercilessly from a certain widow ; wherefore I must now endure this 
merciless punishment from the same beast.'" lb. p. 214. Certainly the 
medieval imagination had a genius for making the punishment fit the crime. 
1 A nunnery m a large town would be far more dependent on buying 
food. Thus an account of the household expenses of St Helen's Bishopsgate, 
in the sixteenth century shows that the nuns had to pay £22 for buying 
corn and £60. 135. 4d. for meat and other foodstuffs. They were heavily 
in debt, and their creditors included a brewer, a " cornman," two fishmongers 
and a butcher. V.C.H. London, i, p. 460. ^ Baker, op. cit. i, pp. 281-3. 


yearlings, calves, sheep, wethers, hogerells, lambs, hogs, boars, 
sows, hilts, hogsters and pigs. In each class it was carefully 
set down how many animals remained in stock at the end of the 
year and what had been done with the others. We know some- 
thing of the consumption of meat by the nuns of Catesby and 
their servants in this year of grace 1414-5, when the old rule 
against the eating of meat was relaxed; and we see something 
of the cares of a medieval housewife in those days before root- 
crops were known, when the number of animals which could be 
kept alive during the winter was strictly limited by the amount 
of hay produced on the valuable meadow land. Only in summer 
could the convent have fresh meat; and on St Martin's day 
(Nov. 11) the business of killing and salting the rest of the 
stock for winter food began^. From good Dame Elizabeth 
Swynford's account it appears that five oxen, one stirk, thirty 
hogs and one boar were dehvered to the larderer to be salted; 
in summer time, when the convent could enjoy fresh meat, five 
calves, fourteen sheep, ten hogs and twelve pigs were sent in 
to the kitchen ; and twenty cows were divided between the larder 
and the kitchen, to provide salt and fresh beef. There is un- 
fortunately no record of the produce of the dairy, which supplied 
the convent with milk, cheese, eggs and occasional chickens. 

But the home-farm served the purpose of pro-viding money 
as well as food. The hides of the oxen and the "wool pells" of 
the sheep, which had been killed for food or had fallen victim 
to that curse of medieval farming, the murrain, were by no means 
wasted. Five hides belonging to animals which had died of 
murrain were tanned and used for collars and other cart gear 
on the farm ; but all the rest were sold, thirty-six of them in all. 
Most lucrative of all, however, was the sale of wool pells and 
wool, and Dame Elizabeth Swynford is very exact; eighteen wool 
pells, from sheep which the convent had eaten as mutton, sold 
before shearing for 35s. lod., thirty-eight sold after shearing for 
gs. 6d., thirty-six lamb skins for is.; and 6d. was received "for 
wynter lokes sold." Moreover the convent also sold one sack 
and eight weight of wool at £5. 4s. the sack, for a total of £6. i6s. 

'■ The convent bought 4J qrs. of salt for 25s. for the operation this year. 
Baker, op. cif. i, p. 280. Compare, for the operation at Gracedieu, Gasquet, 
Eng. Mon. Life, p. 174. 


Altogether the "issues of the manor" amounted to the sub- 
stantial sum of £24. 8s. 8d., chiefly derived from these sales of 
wool and wool pells and from the sale of some timber for 
£6. 13s. ^d.^ These details about wool are interesting, for it is 
well known that the monastic houses of England, especially in 
the northern counties, were great sheep farmers. Most accounts 
mention this important source of revenue and in the series of 
rolls kept by the treasuresses of St Michael's Stamford, it is 
regularly entered under the heading "Fermes, dismes, leynes et 
pensions," a somewhat miscellaneous classification 2. In the thir- 
teenth-century Pratica delta Mercatura of Francesco Pergolotti 
there is incorporated a hst of monasteries which sell wool, 
compiled for the use of Italian wool merchants and giving the 
prices per sack of the different qualities of wool at each house. 
The Ust contains a section specially devoted to nunneries, in 
which twenty houses are mentioned, all but two of them in 
Lincolnshire or Yorkshire'. Armed with this information the 

' The account of the cellaress of Syon for the year 1536-7 gives very 
full details of the income derived from the sale of hides and fells. John 
Lyrer, tanner, buys from her fifty-five o.x-hides at 3s. (>d. each, and three 
cow-hides, two steer-hides, one bull-hide, and one murrain o.x-hide at 2s. 4^. 
each,,s4ia-king a total of ;/^io. 8s. jod. The same John Lyrer buys 230 calf- 
skins«ir £-i. i6s. Sd. John Cockes, fellmonger, buys 287 "shorling felles," 
at 3s. the dozen, 190 "skynnes of wynter felles" at 6s. the dozen, 77 
"skynnes somerfelles" at 8s. the dozen, for a total for £1.0. i8s. id. The 
different qualities of wool were always carefully distinguished and priced. 
Myroure of Oure Ladye, ed. Blunt, p. xxix 

^ A few examples taken at random will suffice: "By the sale of wool 
4 marks us. 8d. From Gilbert of Chesterton for the wool del aan ke est aveni 
lOOs. " (32-3 Edw. I). P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1260/1. " From the sale of 14 stone 
of wool, price per stone 7s., 4^. i8s. " (48-9 Edw. III). lb. 1260/4. "Received 
for one sack of 20 stone of wool sold last year, at 4s. per stone, 13 marks, 
10s. Bd. Received for one sack of this years wool, at 4s. 6d. per stone, 
5^ 17s. od." (either 46-7 or 47-8 Edw. III). 76. 1260/21. "From John of 
the Pantry for 11^ stone of wool at 6s. the stone, 6gs. " (1-2 Rich. II). 
lb. 1260/7. In 1412 Romsey Abbey derived ,^60 out of a total income of 
;^404. 6s. 4j(i. from the sale of wool. Liveing, op. cit. p. 194. 

' See, for this very interesting document, Cunningham, Growth of English 
Industry and Commerce (1905 ed.), 1, App. D, pp. 628-41. The nunneries 
mentioned, with the amount of wool obtainable from each annually, are 
Stainfield (from 12 sacks), Stixwould (from 15 sacks), Nuncoton (from 
10 sacks), Hampole (from 6 sacks), St Leonard's Grimsby (from 2 sacks), 
Heynings (from 2 sacks), Gokewell (from 4 sacks), Langley (from 5 sacks), 
Arden (from 10 sacks), Keldholme (from 12 sacks), Rosedale (from 10 sacks), 
St Clement's York (from 3 sacks), Swine (from 8 sacks), Marrick (from 
8 sacks), Wykeham (from 4 sacks), Ankerwyke (from 4 sacks). Thicket 
(from 4 sacks), Nunmonkton (number missing), Yedingham (do.), Legbourne 


Italians would journey from nunnery to nunnery and bargain 
with the nuns for their wool: the whole crop would sometimes 
be commissioned by them in advance, sold on the backs of 
the sheep. The Enghsh distrusted these dark smooth-spoken 
foreigners; many years later the author of the Libel of English 
Policie charged them with dishonest practices and complained 
of the freedom with which they were allowed to buy in England : 

In Cotteswold also they ride about, 
And all England, and buy withouten doubte 
What them list with freedome and franchise. 
More than we Enghsh may gitten many wise^- 

But it must have been a great day for the impoverished nuns 
of Yorkshire when slim ItaUan or stout Fleming came riding 
down the dales under a spring sun to bargain for their wool 
crop. What a bustling hither and thither there would be, and 
what a confabulation in the parlour between my lady Prioress 
and her steward and her chaplain and the stranger sitting op- 
posite to them and speaking his reasons "ful solempnely." What 
a careful distinguishing of the best and the medium and the 
worst kind of wool, which the Italian calls huona lana and mojano 
lana and locchi. What a haggling over the price, which varies 
from nunnery to nunnery, but always allows the merchr-it to 
sell at a good profit in the markets of Flanders and Italy. J'tTiat 
sighs of relief when the stranger trots off again, sitting high on 
his horse and taking with him a silken purse, or a blood-band 
or a pair of gloves in "courtesy" from the nuns. What blessings 
on the black-faced sheep, when the sorely-needed silver is 
locked up in the treasury chest and debts begin to look less 
terrible, leaking roofs less incurable, pittances less few and far 

(4) Miscellaneous payments. A last source of temporal revenue 
consisted in the sums paid for board and lodging by visitors, 
regular boarders and schoolchildren. Though such visitors were 
frowned at by bishops as subversive of disciphne, the nuns 
welcomed their contributions to the lean income of the convent, 

from 3 sacks). A similar Flemish list mentions Hampole, Nuncoton, Stain- 
field and Gracedieu(33 lbs.). Varenbergh, Hist, des Relations Diploniatiques 
enire le Comti de Flandre et I'Angleterre au Moyen Age (Brussels, 1874), 
pp. 214-7. 

' "The Libel of English PoUcie," in Hakluyt's Voyages (Everyman's 
Lib. edit.), 1, p. 186. 


and in most nunnery accounts payments by boarders will be 
found among other miscellaneous receipts. 

(5) Spiritualities. In the revenues which have hitherto been 
considered, the monastic rent-rolls differed in no way from those 
of any lay owner of land. The source of revenue now to be dis- 
tinguished was more specifically ecclesiastical. All monasteries 
derived a more or less large income from certain grants made 
to them in their capacity as rehgious houses. Most important 
of these was the appropriation of benefices to their use. When a 
church was appropriated to a monastery, the monastery was 
usually supposed to put in a vicar at a fixed stipend to serve 
the parish, and the great tithes (which would otherwise have sup- 
ported a rector) were taken by the corporation. Sometimes half 
a church was so appropriated and half the tithes were taken. 
The practice of appropriating churches was widespread; not only 
the king and other lay patrons, but also the bishops used this 
means of enriching rehgious bodies and the favourite petition 
of an impecunious convent was for permission to appropriate 
a church^. Over and over again the gift of the advowson of a 
church to a monastery is followed by appropriation 2. The per- 

1 See, for instance, a petition from the nuns of Carrow asking to be 
allowed to appropriate the church of Surhngham, of which they had the 
advowson, "qar, tres dute seignour, lauoesoun ne les fait bien eynz de les 
mettre en daunger de presentement en chescune voedaunce"; P.R.O. And. 
Pefei. 232/1 1587. Itappearsthat theprioress had letters patent to appropriate 
the church, probably in answer to this petition in 22 Edw. II; Rye, Carrow 
Abbey, App. p. xxxvi. It may be useful to give a few out of very many 
references to the appropriation of a church to a nunnery on account of 
poverty: Clifton to Lingbrook (Reg. R. de Swinfield, p. 134), Wolferlow and 
Bridge SoUers to Aconbury (Reg. A. de Orleton, pp. 176, 200), Rockbeare 
to Canonsleigh (Reg. Grandisson, 11, p. 698), Compton and Upmardon to 
Easebourne (Bp. Rede's Reg. p. 137), Itchen Stoke to Romsey (Reg. Sandale, 
p. 269), Whenby to Moxby (Reg. Wickwane, p. 290), Horton to St Clement's 
York (Reg. Gray, p. 107), Bishopthorpe to the same (Reg. Gijfard, p. 59), 
Dalhngton to Flamstead (Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 301), Quadring to Stainfield 
(V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 131), Easton Neston to Sewardsley and Desborough 
to Rothwell (V.C.H. Norihanls. u, p. 137), Lidlington to Barking (V.C.H. 
Essex, II, p. 119), Bradford, Tisbury and Gillingham to Shaftesbury ( V.C.H. 
Dorset, 11, p. 77). 

2 An analysis of the possessions of Carrow gives some good examples 
of this. The churches of Earlham, Stow Bardolph, Surlingham, Swardeston, 
East Winch and Wroxham were all appropriated soon after their advowsons 
had been granted to the priory, which also possessed the advowsons of four 
churches in Norwich, the moiety of another advowson, the moiety of a 
rectory and various tithes or portions of tithes in different manors and 
parishes. Rye, Carrow Abbey, App. x. 


mission of the bishop of the diocese and of the pope was necessary 
for the transaction, but it seems rarely to have been refused; and 
it has been calculated that at least a third part of the tithes of the 
richest benefices in England were appropriated either in part or 
wholly to religious and secular bodies, such as colleges, military 
orders, lay hospitals, guilds, convents ; even deans, cantors, treasurers 
and chancellors of cathedral bodies were also largely endowed with 
rectorial tithes i. 

The practice of appropriation became a very serious abuse, 
for not all monasteries were conscientious in performing their 
duties to the parishes from which they derived such a large 
income, and ignorant and underpaid vicars often enough left 
their sheep encumbered in the mire, or swelled with their misery 
and discontent the democratic revolution known by the too 
narrow name of the Peasants' Revolt 2. Moreover there is no 
doubt that sometimes the monks and nuns neglected even the 
obvious duty of putting in a vicar, and the hungry sheep looked 
up and were not fed. The Valor Ecclesiasticus throws an inter- 
esting light on this subject. The nuns of Elstow Abbey held no 
less than eleven rectories, from which they derived £157. 6s. 81^., 
but they paid stipends to four vicars only, and the total of the 
four was ;£6. 6s. 8^.^ The nuns of Westwood received £12. 12s. 10^. 
from two rectories and paid to a deacon in one of them iis. 4c?.* 
The Minoresses without Aldgate held four rectories ; from that 
of Potton (Beds.) they received £16. 6s. 8(^. and paid the vicar 
£2; from that of Kessingland, Suffolk, £9 and paid the vicar 
£2. 4s. 4(^.5 Another very common practice which cannot have 
conduced to the welfare of the parishioners was that of farming 
out the proceeds of appropriated churches, just as manors were 
farmed out. The farmer paid the nuns a lump sum annually 
and took the proceeds of the tithes. The purpose of such an 
arrangement was convenience, since it saved the convent the 
trouble of collecting the revenues and tithes. It was open to 
objection from all points of view; for on the one hand the 

^ Gasquet, Eng. Mon. Life, p. 194. 

* For the abuses of appropriation, see Coulton, Medieval Studies, no. 8, 
pp. 6-8. For the part played by the lower clergy' in the Peasants' Revolt, 
see Petit-DutaiUis, Studies Supplementary to Stiibbs' Constit. Hist. II, 
pp. 270-1, and Kriehn, Studies in the Sources of the Social Revolt in 1381 
(Amer. Hist. Review, 1901), vi, pp. 480-4. 

2 Valor Eccles. IV, p. i88. 

^ 76. Ill, p. 276. ' 76, I, p. 897. 


nuns might, and often did, make bad bargains, and on the 
other they were still less likely to care for the spiritual welfare 
of the unfortunate parishioners, whose souls were to all intents 
and purposes farmed out with their tithes; though the pay- 
ment of a vicar was sometimes made by the nuns or stipulated 
for in the agreement with the farmer. The Valor EcclesiasHcus 
gives the total spiritual revenue of the 84 nunneries holding 
spiritualities as £2705. 17s. ^d. and of this sum spirituahties 
to the value of ;£i075. os. 6d., belonging to 33 houses were 
entered as being at farm^. 

Account rolls often throw a flood of light upon the income 
derived from appropriated churches. To the nuns of St Michael's 
Stamford had been assigned by various abbots of Peterborough 
the churches of St Martin, St Clement, All Souls, St Andrew 
and Thurlby, and in the reign of Henry II two pious ladies gave 
them the moieties of the church of Corby and chapel of Upton 2. 
Moreover in 1354, after the httle nunnery of Wothorpe had been 
ruined by the Black Death, all its possessions were handed 
over to St Michael's and included the appropriation of the church 
of Wothorpe; the bishop stipulated that the proceeds of the 
priory with the rectory should be applied to the support of 
the infirmary and kitchen of St Michael's and that the nuns 
should keep a chaplain to serve the parish church of Wothorpe^. 
Corby and Thurlby were afterwards farmed out by the nuns* 
and in 1377-8 they brought in £ig and £20 respectively, while 
the nuns got £26. os. 8d. from "the church of All Saints beyond 
the water," £1. 13s. ^d. from the parson of Cottesmore and a 
pension of 6s. 8d. from the church of St Martin. They paid the 
vicar of Wothorpe a stipend of £2 a year^. Over half their 
income was usually derived from "farms, tithes and pensions," 
i.e. from ecclesiastical sources of revenue. 

It was also very common to make grants of tithes out of 

^ Jacka, op. cit. i. 35. See the list of "Farms and Pensions" in the 
prioress of Catesby's accounts for 1414-5. Baker, Hist, and Anliqs. of 
Northants. I, p. 2jci. 

" V.C.H. Northants. 11, p. 98. ' Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 268. 

■• This appears from the regular entry of the amount brought in by the 
farms of the two churches in the account rolls. In 1458 the nuns received 
formal permission from the bishop to lease out and dispose of the fruits and 
revenues of any of the appropriated churches. Madox, Form. Anglic, dxc. 

^ P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1260/7 


piety to a monastery, even when a grant of the advowson of 
the church was not made. A lord would make over to it the 
tithes of wheat, or a portion of the tithes, in certain parishes, 
or perhaps the tithes of his own demesne land. Sometimes the 
rector of a parish would pay the monks or nuns an annual rent 
in commutation of their tithes ; sometimes he would dispute their 
claim and the tedious altercation would drag on for years, ending 
perhaps in the expense of a law-suit ^. Besides advowsons and 
tithes various other pensions and payments were bestowed upon 
religious houses by benefactors, who would leave an annual 
pension to a monastery as a charge upon a particular piece 
of land, or church, or upon another monastery^. 

Another "spiritual" source of revenue consisted in alms and 
gifts given to the nuns as a work of piety. Sometimes a nunnery 
possessed a famous relic, and the faithful who visited it showed 
their devotion by leaving a gift at the shrine. The Valor some- 
times gives very interesting information about these cherished 
possessions, described under the unkind heading Superstitio. The 
Yorkshire nuns possessed among them a great variety of relics, 
some of them having the most incongruous virtues. At Sinning- 
thwaite was to be found the arm of St Margaret and the tunic of 
St Bernard "believed to be good for women lying in"^, at Arden 
was an image of St Bride, to which women made offerings 

' See for instance Norris' note (quoted by Rye) on the grant to Carrow 
Priory of the tithes of all wheat growing in the parishes of Bergh and Apton, 
which tithes "occasioned many disputes between the Rector and the Con- 
vent, till at length about the j^ear 1237 i* ^'•'^^ agreed by the Prioress and 
Convent and Thomas, the then Rector, ...that the Rector should pay to the 
Convent 14 quarters of wheat in lieu of all their tithes there, which was 
constantly paid, with some little allowance for defect of measure, until 
29 Edw. Ill, when there was a suit between Prioress and Rector about them. 
What was the event of it I find not, but they soon after returned to the old 
payment of 14 qrs., which continued until 21 Hen. VI, when the dispute was 
revived and in a litigious way they continued above ten years, but I find they 
afterwards returned again to the old agreement and kept to it, I believe, to 
the dissolution of the Priory." Rye mentions a suit between the Rector 
and Prioress in 1321. Similarly the nuns were involved in a tedious suit 
(10 Edw. I) about the tithes of the demesne of the manor of Barshall in 
Riston, with the Rector of Riston. Rye, Carrow Abbey, App. pp. xxx, 


^ See below, p. 199, for the other side of the matter. 

' Similarly the nuns of Kingsmead, Derby, had part of the shirt of 
St Thomas of Canterbury, and the nuns of Gracedieu had the girdle and part 
of the tunic of St Francis, both of which were good for the same purpose. 
V.C.H. Derby, 11, p. 43; Nichols, Hist, of Leic. in, p. 652. 


for cows that had strayed or were ill. The nuns of Arthington 
had a girdle of the Virgin and the nuns of St Clement's York 
and Basedale both had some of her milk; at St Clement's 
pilgrimages were made to the obscure but popular St Syth^. In 
other parts of the country it was the same. St Edmund's altar in 
the conventual church of Catesby was a place of pilgrimage, for he 
had bequeathed his pall and a silver tablet to his sister Margaret 
Rich, prioress there^; and in 1400 Boniface IX granted an indult 
to the Abbess of Barking to have mass and the other divine 
offices celebrated in an oratory called "Rodlofte" (rood-loft), 
in which was preserved a cross to which many people resorted^- 
The nuns of St Michael's Stamford not infrequently record sums 
received from a pardon held at one of their churches, and almost 
every year they received sums of money in exchange for their 
prayers for the souls of the dead. "Almes et aventures," souls 
and chance payments, was a regular heading in their account 
roll, and the name of the person for whose soul they were to 
pray was entered opposite the money received. Miscellaneous 
alms from the faithful were always a source of revenue, though 
necessarily a fluctuating source*. 

Such were the chief sources from which a medieval nunnery 
derived its income. We must now consider the chief expenses 
which the nuns had to meet out of that income. It has already 
been shown that the total income of a nunnery was paid into 
the hands of the treasuress or treasuresses, save when the of&ce 
of treasuress was filled by the head of the house, or when a male 
custos was appointed by the bishop to undertake the business. 
It has also been shown that the treasuress paid out certain 
sums to the chief obedientiaries (notably to the cellaress), to 
whose use certain sources of income were indeed sometimes 

1 V.C.H. Yorks. in, pp. 115, 119, 130. i59. 178, 189. 

2 V.C.H. Northanis. 11, p. 122. 

3 V.C.H. Essex, u, p. 118. 

* See for instance the receipts of the nuns of St Michael's Stamford 
from Almes, Almoignes et Auenture entered in their roll for 45-6 Edw. III. 
"From Sir John Weston for a soul, 13s. 4(i. For the soul of Simon the 
Tavemer, is. For the soul of Sir Robert de Thorp, £20. 6s. jd. For the soul 
of William Apethorp, 3s. ^d. For the soul of Alice atte Halle, 3s. ^d. In 
alms from Wilham Ouneby, 6s. M. In alms from Emma of Okham £$. 
Received from the pardon at the church 6s. M. For the pardon from 
Lady Idayne and from Emma Okham £1." P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1260/3. 
But this was an unusually good year. 


earmarked, and that these obedientiaries kept their separate ac- 
counts. The majority of nunnery accounts which have survived 
are, however, treasuresses' accounts ; that is to say they represent 
the general balance sheet at the end of the year, including all the 
chief items of income and expenditure. The different houses 
adopt, as is natural, different methods of classifying their ex- 
pensesi- The great abbey of Romsey classifies thus: (i) The 
Convent, including sums for clothing, for the kitchen expenses 
and for pittances, amounting in all to £105. 17s. 10^. (2) The 
A bbess, who kept her separate household in state ; this includes 
provisions for herself and for her household and divers of their 
expenses, a sum of £8. 12s. in gifts, a sum in liveries for the 
household and spices for the guest-house and a sum in servants' 
wages, amounting to £108. 17s. in all. (3) Divers outside expenses, 
including repairs of houses belonging to the Romsey mills, a 
sum for legal pleas, another for annuities to the convent and to 
the king's clerks, who had stalls in the abbey, over £40 in royal 
taxes and £1. 14s. 8;^. in procurations, amounting to £108 in 
all. (4) Miscellaneous expenses include £8. 19s. 4d. in alms to 
the poor, £6. 13s. 4d. in wine for nobles visiting the abbess, 
a sum for mending broken crockery, a sum for shoeing the 
horses of the Abbess' household, and in horse-hire and expenses 
of men riding on her business, 14s. in oblations of the Abbess 
and her household and £10 in gift to Henry Bishop of Winchester 
on his return from the Holy Land. (5) Repairs and other expenses 
at six manors belonging to this wealthy house, amounting to 

' The account rolls of St Michael's Stamford usually arrange expenses 
under the following headings: (i) rents, (2) petty expenses, (3) convent 
expenses, (4) cost of carts and ploughs, (5) repair of houses, (6) purchase 
of stock, (7) weeding corn and mowing hay, (8) threshing and winnowing, 
(9) harvest expenses, (10) hire of servants, (11) chaplains' fees. See P.R.O. 
Mins. Aocts. 1260/passim. The active prioress of St Mary de Pr6, Christian 
Bassett, classifies her payments as for ( i ) " comyns, pytances and partycions, " 
(2) "yerely charges," (3) "wagys and ffees," (4) "reparacions," (5) "divers 
expensis." Dugdale, Mon. iii, pp. 358-61. The prioress of Catesby(i 414-5) 
classifies (i) rents, (2) petty expenses, (3) expenses of the houses (i.e. re- 
pairs), (4) household expenses, (5) necessary expenses (miscellaneous), 
(6) expenses of carts, (7) purchase of livestock, (8) customary payments 
(to nuns, pittancers, farmers, cottagers, etc. in clothing; details not given); 
(9) purchase of corn, (10) rewards (various small tips to nuns and servants), 
(II) tedding and making hay, harvest expenses, stubble, thrashing and 
winnowing corn, (12) costs of the mill, (13) servants' wages. Baker, Hist, 
and Antiq. of Northants. I, pp. 278-83. 


^77. 2s. 6^d. The total expenses of the abbey this year (1412) 
came to £431. i8s. 8d., against a revenue of £404. 6s. id., drawn 
from six manors and including rents, the commutation fees for 
villein services, the sale of wool, corn and other stores and the 
perquisites of the courts. The deficit is characteristic of nun- 
neries 1. 

An interesting picture of many sides of monastic life is given 
by a general analysis of the chief classes of expenditure usually 
mentioned in account roUs. They may be classified as follows: 
(i) internal expenses of the convent, (2) divers miscellaneous 
expenses connected with external business, (3) repairs, (4) the 
expenses of the home farm and (5) the wage-sheet. 

(i) The internal expenses of the convent. The details of this 
expenditure are sometimes not given very fully, because they 
were set forth at length in the accounts of the cellaress and 
chambress; but a certain amount of food and of household 
goods and clothes was bought directly by the treasuress and 
occasionally the office of ceUaress and treasuress was doubled 
by the same nun, whose account gives more detail. Expenditure 
on clothing appears in one of two forms, either as dress-allowances 
paid annually to the nuns^, or as payments for the purchase of 
linen and cloth and for the hiring of work-people to spin and 
weave and make up the clothes^. Expenditure on food is usually 
concerned with the purchase of fish and of spices, the only 
important foods which could not be produced by the home 

Among other internal expenses are the costs of the guest- 
house and the alms, in money and in kind, which were given to 
the poor. Account rolls sometimes throw a side light on the 
fare provided for visitors: for instance the treasuress of St 
Radegund's, Cambridge, enters upon her roll in 1449-50 the fol- 
lowing items under the heading Providencia Hospicii: 

And paid to William Rogger, for beef, pork, mutton and veal bought 
for the guest house, by the hand of John Grauntyer, 245. 8d. And for 
bread, beer, beef, pork, mutton, veal, sucking pigs, capons, chickens, 
eggs, butter and fresh and salt fish, bought from day to day for the 
guest house during the period of the account, as appears more fully 
set out in detail, in a paper book examined for this account, 

1 LiveiBg, Records of Romsey Abbey, pp. 194-5- 

2 See below, p. 323. ' See below, pp. 157-8. 


;£ii. 75. 4^d. And for one cow bought of Thomas Carrawey for the 
guest house vj s viij d. Total; £13. 8s. 8^d.^ 

In this year the total receipts were £77. 8s. 6hd. and the expendi- 
ture £72. 6s. 4^d., so that quite a large proportion of the nuns' 
income was spent on hospitality. On the other hand the food 
was no doubt partly consumed by these "divers noble persons," 
who paid the convent £8. 14s. ^d. this year for their board and 
lodging. It is a great pity that the separate guest-house account 
book referred to has not survived. At St Michael's Stamford 
the roll for 15-16 Richard II contains a payment of 26s. lod. 
"for the expenses of guests for the whole year," and 6s. 8d. 
"for wine for the guests throughout the year"^; this is a very 
small amount out of a total expenditure of £116. 15s. 4!^. and 
it seems likely that the greater part of the food used for guests 
was not accounted for apart from the convent food. 

The expenditure of nuns on alms is interesting, since alms- 
giving to the poor was one of the functions enjoined upon them 
by their rule; and many houses held a part of their property 
on condition that they should distribute certain alms. Some 
information as to these compulsory alms, though not of course 
as to the voluntary almsgiving of the nuns, is given in the Valor 
Ecclesiasticus. A few entries may be taken at random. St 
Sepulchre's, Canterbury, paid 6s. 8^. for one quarter of wheat 
to be given for the soul of William Calwell, their founder, the 
Thursday next before Easter^. Dartford was allowed £5. 12s. 8d. 
for alms given twice a week to thirteen poor people*; HahweU 
distributed 12s. 8d. in alms to poor folk every Christmas day 
in memory of a Bishop of Lincoln s. Nuneaton was allowed "for 
certain quarters of corn given weekly to the poor and sick at 
the gate of the monastery at •L2d. a week, by order of the 
foundress, £2. 12s. od.; for certain alms on Maundy Thursday 
in money, bread, wine, beer and eels by the foundation, to poor 
and sick within the monastery, £2. 5s. 4^.* Polesworth gave "on 
Maundy Thursday at the washing of the feet of poor persons, 
in drink and \'ictuals,by the foundation £1. 6s. od.'"' A chartulary 

' Gray, Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge, p. 156. 
2 P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1260/10. 
^ Valor Eccles. i, p. 84. * lb. i, p. 119. 

^ lb. I, p. 394. « 76, ni, p. 76. 

' lb. in, p. 77. 


of the great Abbey of Lacock, drawn up at the close of the 
thirteenth century, contains an interesting hst of alms payable 
to the poor and pittances to the nuns themselves on certain 
feasts and anniversaries. It runs: 

We ought to feed on All Souls' day as many poor as there are ladies, 
to each poor person a dry loaf and as a relish two herrings or a slice 
of cheese, and the convent the same day shall have two courses. On 
the anniversary of the foundress (24 Aug. 1261) 100 poor each shall 
have a wheaten loaf and two herrings, be it a flesh-day or not, and the 
convent shall have to eat simnels and wine and three courses and 
two at supper. On the anniversary of her father (17 April 11 96) each 
year thirteen poor shall be fed. On the anniversary of her husband 
thirteen poor shall be fed, and the convent shall have half a mark 
for a pittance. On the anniversary of Sir Nicholas Hedinton they 
should distribute to the poor 8s. and ^d., or corn amounting to as 
much money, i.e. wheat, barley and beans, and the convent half a 
mark for a pittance. The day of the burial of a lady of the convent 
100 poor, to each a mite or a dry loaf.... The day of the Last Supper, 
after the Maundy, they shall give to each poor person a loaf of the 
weight of the convent loaf, and of the dough of full bread, and half a 
gallon of beer and two herrings, and half a bushel of beans for soup^. 

Account roUs sometimes contain references to food or money 
distributed to the poor on the great almsgiving day of Maundy 
Thursday, or on special feast days. The nuns of St Michael's 
Stamford regularly bought herrings to be given to the poor on 
Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, St Laurence's day, St 
Michael's day and St Andrew's day. The nuns of St Radegund's, 
Cambridge, in 1450-1 distributed 2S. id. among the poor on 
Maundy Thursday and gave lod. "to certain poor persons lately 
labouring in the wars of the lord king " ^ The Prioress of St Mary 
de Pre, St Albans, has an item "paid in expenses for straungers, 
pore men lasours, tennents and fermours for brede and ale and 
other vitaills xxxvjs vn]d"^. It is interesting to note that nun- 
neries are not infrequently found giving alms in money or kind 
to the mendicant friars. The Prioress of Catesby gave away 
I qr. 3 bushels of wheat "to brethren of the four orders and 
other poor" in 1414-5*- The Oxford friary received from 
Godstow in memory of the soul of one Roger Whittell fourteen 

^ Archaeol. Journ. Lxix (1912), pp. 120-1. 
^ Gray, op. cit. p. 172. 

" Dugdale, Mon. in, p. 359. The heading under which this item comes 
is Yerely Charges. 

* Baker, Hist, and Aniiq. of Northants. i, p. 281. 


loaves every fortnight and 35. 4^. in money and one peck of 
oatmeal and one of peas in Lent. The Friars Minor of Cambridge 
were sometimes sent a pig by the Abbess of Denny^. It will be 
seen in a later chapter that the poor Yorkshire nunneries of 
St Clement's York and Moxby were considerably burdened by 
the obligation to pay 14 loaves weekly to the friars of York^ In 
general, however, it is difficult to form any just estimate as to 
how much almsgiving was really done by the nuns. There is no 
evidence as to whether they daily gave away to the poor, as 
their rule demanded, the fragments left over from their own 
meals ; for such almsgiving would be entered neither in account 
rolls nor in chartularies and surveys dealing with endowments 
earmarked for charity. 

Another class of gifts which deserves some notice consists 
of gratuities to friends, well-wishers or dependents of the house, 
for benefits sohcited or received. No one in the middle ages was 
too dignified to receive a tip. The nuns of St Michael's, Stamford, 
regularly give what they euphemistically term "gifts" or 
"courtesies" to a large number of persons, ranging from their 
own servants at Christmas to men of law, engaged in the various 
suits in which they were involved. To the high and mighty they 
present wine, or a capon, or money discreetly jingling in the 
depths of a silken purse. To the lowly they present a plain un- 
varnished tip. The nuns of St Radegund's, Cambridge, pay i2d. 
" for a crane bought and given to the chancellor of the university 
of Cambridge, for his good friendship in divers of my lady's 
affairs in the interest of the convent" ; and "the four waits of 
the Mayor of Cambridge " receive a Christmas box of 2s. ■^d. " for 
their services to the lady Prioress and convent." Dono Data is a 
regular heading in their accounts, and in 1450-1 there is a long 
list of small gifts to dependents, ranging from id. to lod., and 
a sum of 2s. for linen garments bought for gifts at Christmas'. 
Similarly the cellaress of Syon in 1536-7 gave her servants at 
Christmas a reward of 20s. "with their aprons"*. Whether to 
ensure that a lawsuit should go in favour of the convent, or 
merely to reward faithful service or to celebrate a feast, such 

^ A. G. Little, Studies in English Franciscan History (1917), pp. 25, 43. 

' See below, p. 199. 

' Gray, op. cit. pp. 156, 172. 

' Myroure of Oure Ladye, ed. Blunt, introd. p. xxxi. 


payments were well laid out and no careful housekeeper could 
afford to neglect them. 

(2) Divers expenses include payments for various fines, 
amercements and legal expenses and also for the numerous 
journeys undertaken by the prioress or by their servants on 
convent business. The legal expenses which fell upon the nuns 
of St Michael's, Stamford, ranged from a big suit in London 
and various cases over disputed tithes at the court of the bishop 
of Lincoln, to divers small amercements, when the convent pigs 
"trespassed in Castle meadow "i. The payments for journeys 
often give a vivid picture of nuns inspecting their manors and 
visiting their bishop^. Under this heading is also included a 
payment for ink and parchment and for the fee of the clerk who 
wrote out the account. 

(3) Repairs were a very serious item in the balance sheet 
of every monastic house, and in spite of the amount of money, 
which account rolls show to have been spent upon them, visita- 
tion reports have much to say about crumbling walls and 
leaking roofs. It was seldom that a year passed without several 
visits from the plumbers, the slaters and the thatchers, to the 
precincts of a nunnery; and once arrived they were not easy 
to dislodge. If perchance the nunnery buildings themselves 
stood firm, then the houses of the tenants would be falling about 
their ears; and once more the distracted treasuress must sum- 
mon workmen. Usually the nuns purchased the materials used 
for repairs and hired the labour separately, and the workers were 
sometimes fed in the nunnery kitchen; for it was customary 
at this time to include board with the wages of many hired 

The accounts of St Radegund's, Cambridge, in 1449-50 will 
serve as an example of the expenditure under this heading^. It 
was a heavy year, for the nuns were having two tenements built 
in "Nunneslane" adjoining their house, and the accounts give 
an interesting picture of the building of a little medieval house 
of clay and wattle, with stone foundations, whitewashed walls 
and thatched roof. First of all Henry Denesson, carpenter, a 
most important person, was hired to set up all the woodwork 

' See below, p. 202. ' See e.g. above, p. 70. 

' Gray, op. cii. pp. 153-5. 


at a wage of 23s. ^d. for the whole piece of work; he had an 
assistant John Cokke, who was paid 14^. for ten days' work; 
Simon Maydewell was kept hard at work sawing timber for his 
use for ten days at I4d. and over a cart load and a half of 
" splentes " (small pieces of wood laid horizontally in a stud wall) 
were purchased at a cost of 6s. 2d. Henry and John spent ten 
days setting up the framework of the two cottages, but they 
were not the only workers. The "gruncill" (or beam laid along 
the ground for the rest to stand on) had to be laid firmly on a 
stone foundation; the walls had to be filled between the beams 
with clay, strengthened with a mixture of reeds and sedge and 
bound with hemp nailed firmly to the beams. The account tells 
us aU about these operations : 

and in hemp with nails bought for binding the walls i6d., and in stone 
bought from Thomas Janes of Hynton to support the gruncill 6s. 8d., 
and in one measure of quicklime bought for the same work 3s., and 
in six cartloads of clay bought of Richard Poket of Barnw-ell 18^., 
and in the hire of Geoffrey Sconyng and William Brann, to lay the 
gruncill of the aforesaid tenements and to daub the walls thereof 
(i.e. to make them of clay), for the whole work 175. ^d. And in reeds 
bought of John Bere, "reder," for the aforesaid tenements 2s. ^d., 
and in "1000 de les segh" (sedge) for the same work 55. And in 
22 bunches of wattles 22d., and in boards bought at the fair of St John 
the Baptist to make the door and windows 25. lod., and in 1000 nails 
for the said work, together -wdth 1000 more nails bought afterwards 
2s. &ld. 

Finally the houses had to be roofed with a thatch of straw and 
a fresh set of workmen were called in : 

and for the hire of John Scot, thatcher, hired to roof with straw the 
two aforesaid tenements, for 12 days, taking 4^. a day, at the board 
of the Lady (Prioress) 4s. And for the hire of Thomas Clerk for 8 J days 
and of Nicholaus Burnefygge for 10 days, carrying straw and serving 
the said thatcher 3s. id.; and in the hire of Katherine Rolf for the 
same work (women often acted as thatchers' assistants) for 12 days 
at i^d. a day, iM. 

And behold two very nice little cottages. 

But let not the ignorant suppose that this completed the 
expenditure of the nuns on building and repairs. Henry Denes- 
son, the indispensable, soon had to be hired again to set up some 
woodwork in a tenement in Precherch Street, and to build a 
gable there. A kitchen had to be built next to these tenements, 


and the business of hiring carpenters, daubers and thatchers was 
repeated; John Scot and John Cokke once more scaled the 
roofs. Then a house in Nun's Lane was burnt and sedge had to 
be bought to thatch it. Then three labourers had to be hired 
for four days to mend the roofs of the hall, kitchen and other 
parts of the nunnery itself, taking 5;^. a day and their board. 
Then the roofs of the frater and the granary began to leak and 
the same labourers had to be hired for four more days. Then, 
just as the treasuress thought that she had got rid of the 
ubiquitous Henry Denesson for good, back he had to be called 
with a servant to help him, to set up the falling granary again. 
Then a lock had to be made for the guests' kitchen and for three 
other rooms in the nunnery; and when John Egate, tiler, and 
John Tommesson, tenants of the nuns, got wind that locks were 
being made, they must needs have some for their tenements. 
Then a defect in the church had to be repaired by John Corry 
and a cover made for the font. There was more purchase of 
reeds and sedge, boards and "300 nails {i2d.) and 100 nails {2d.) 
bought at Stourbridge Fair" for 141^. Last came the inevitable 
plumber : 

And for a certain plumber hired to mend a gutter between the tene- 
ment wherein Walter Ferrer dwells and a tenement of the Prior of 
Barnwell, with lead found by the said Prior, together with the mending 
of a defect in the church of St Radegund i^d. And in the hire of the 
aforesaid plumber to mend a lead pipe extending from the font to 
the copper in the brewhouse, together ^vith the solder of the said 
plumber 8d. 

In all the cost of repairs and buildings came to £8. 3s. yd. out 
of a total expenditure of £72. 6s. 4^d. 

(4) Expenses of the home farm. The home farm was an 
essential feature of manorial economy and particularly so when 
the lord of the manor was a community. The nuns expected to 
draw the greater part of their food from the farm; livestock, 
grain and dairy all had to be superintended. A student of these 
account rolls may see unrolled before him all the different opera- 
tions of the year, the autumn ploughing and sowing, the spring 
ploughing and sowing, the hay crop mown in June and the 
strenuous labours of the harvest. He may, if he will, know how 
many sheep the shepherd led to pasture and how many oxen 
the oxherd drove home in the evening, for the inventory on the 


back of an account roll enumerates minutely all the stock. There 
is something homely and familiar in lists such as the tale of 
cattle owned by the nuns of Sheppey at the Dissolution: 

V centre oxen and iij western oxen fatt,...xviij leane centre oxen 
workers, xij leane centre sterys of ij or iij yere age, xxviij yeryngs, 
xxxviii kene and heifers... xxvi cattle of thys yere, an horse, j elde 
baye, a dunne, a whyte and an amblelyng grey, vj geldings and 
herse fer the plow and harowe, with v mares, xUij hogges of dyvers 
sorts, in wethers and lammys cccc''-'''',...and in beryng ewes vij",... 
in twelvementhyngs, ewes and wethers vi<^ lambys at this 
present daye v^lx^. 

How these lean country oxen, the "one old bay, a dun, a 
white and an ambling grey," bring the quiet Enghsh landscape 
before the reader's eyes. Time is as nothing; and the ploughman 
trudging over the brown furrows, the slow, warm beasts, 
breathing heavily in the darkness of their byre, are little changed 
from what they were five hundred years ago — save that our 
beasts to-day are larger and fatter, thanks to turnips and Mr 
Bakewell. Kingdoms rise and fall, but the seasons never alter, 
and the farm servant, conning these old accounts, would find 
nothing in them but the life he knew : 

This is the year's round he must go 

To make and then to win the seed : 

In winter to sow and in March to hee 

Michaelmas plowing, Epiphany sheep; 

Come June there is the grass to mow, 

At Lammas all the vill must reap. 

From dawn till dusk, from Easter till Lent 

Here are the laws that he must keep : 

Out and home goes he, back-bent. 

Heavy, patient, slew as of eld 

Father, granfer, ancestor went 

O'er Sussex weald and Yorkshire weld. 

what see you from your gray hill? 
The sun is low, the air all geld, 
Warm hes the slumbrous land and still. 

1 see the river with deep and shallow, 
I see the ford, I hear the miU; 

I see the cattle upon the fallow; 
And there the manor half in trees, 
And there the church and the acre hallow 
Where lie your dead in their feretories.... 

' Mackenzie Walcott, Inventories of...Shepev, pp. 32-3. 


I see the yews and the thatch between 
The smoke that tells of cottage and hearth. 
And all as it has ever been 
From the beginning of this old earth^. 

The farm labourer to-day would well understand all these 
items of expenditure, which the monastic treasuress laboriously 
enters in her account. He would understand that heavy section 
headed "Repair of Carts and Ploughs." He would understand 
the purchases of grain for seed, or for the food of livestock, 
of a cow here, a couple of oxen there, of whip-cord and horse- 
collars, traces and sack-cloth and bran for a sick horse. Farm 
expenses are always the same. The items which throw light on 
sheep-farming are very interesting, in view of the good income 
which monastic houses in pastoral districts made by the sale 
of their wool. The Prioress of Catesby's account for 1414-5 

In expences about washing and shearing of sheep v s vj d. In ale 
bought for caudles ij s. In pitchers viij d. In ale about the carriage 
of peas to the sheepcote iv d ob. In a tressel bought for new milk 
viij d. In nails for a door there iv d ob. In thatching the sheepcote 
viij d. In amending walls about the sheepcote ix d; 

and in her inventory of stock she accounts for 

118 sheep received of stock, whereof there was delivered to the kitchen 
after shearing by tally 14, in murrain before shearing 12, and there 
remains loi ; and for 5 wethers of stock and 2 purchased, whereof in 
murrain before shearing 3, and there remains 4; and for 144 lambs 
of issues of aU ewes, whereof in murrain 23; and there remains 1212. 

The nuns of Gracedieu in the same spring had a flock of 103 
ewes and 52 lambs; and there is mention in their accounts of 
the sale of 30 stone of wool to a neighbour^; and the nuns of 
Sheppey, as the inventory quoted above bears witness, had a 
very large flock indeed. 

Some of the most interesting entries in the accounts are the 
payments for extra labour at busy seasons, to weed corn, make 
hay, shear sheep, thresh and winnow. The busiest season of all, 

1 Maurice Hewlett, The Song of the Plow (1916), pp. 9-io- 

2 Baker, Hisi. and Antiq. of Northants. i, p. 283. Compare the St Rade- 
gund's Cambridge accounts : " Et in butumine empto cum pycche hoc anno 
pro bidentibus signandis et ungendis, ij s j d. Et in clatis emptis ad faldam, 
iij s iij d. Et solutum pro remocione falde per diversas vices, iij d....Et 
in bidentibus hoc anno lavandis et tondendis ij s iij d." Gray, op. cit. 
PP- 155. 171- 


the climax of the farmer's year, was harvest time; and most 
monastic accounts give it a separate heading. The nuns of St 
Michael's, Stamford, year after year record the date "when we 
began to reap" and the payments to reapers and cockers for 
the first four or five weeks and to carters for the fortnight 
afterwards. Extra workers, both men and women, came in 
from among the cottagers of the manor and of neighbouring 
manors ; in some parts of the country migrant harvesters came, 
as they do to-day, from distant uplands to help on the farms 
of the rich cornland. To oversee them a special reap-reeve was 
hired at a higher rate (the nuns of St Michael's paid him 13s. 8d. 
in 1378) ; gloves were given to the reapers to protect them from 
thistles^ ; special tithers were hired to set aside the sheaves due 
to the convent as tithes (the convent paid "to one tither of 
Wothorpe," an appropriated church, "los., and to two of our 
tithers 13s. 4^."). The honest Tusser sets out the usage in jingling 
rhyme : 

Grant haruest lord more by a penie or twoo 

to call on his f ellowes the better to doo : 
Giue gloues to thy reapers, a larges to crie, 

and daihe to loiterers haue a good eie. 
Reape wel, scatter not, gather cleane that is shorne, 

binde faste, shock apace, haue an eie to thy corne. 
Lode safe, carrie home, follow time being faire, 

goue iust in the barne, it is out of despaire. 
Tithe duhe and truUe, with hartie good will 

that God and his blessing may dwell with thee still: 
Though Parson neglecteth his dutie for this, 

thank thou thy Lord God, and giue erie man liis^. 

Usually the workers got their board during harvest and very 
well they fared. The careful treasuresses of St Michael's get in 
beef and mutton and fish for them, to say nothing of eggs and 
bread and oatmeal and foaming jugs of beer. Porringers and 
platters have to be laid in for them to feed from ; and since they 
work until the sun goes down, candles must be bought to light 

' They are a regular item in the St Michael's, Stamford, accounts and 
compare the accounts of St Radegund's, Cambridge: "And in viij pairs 
of gloves bought for divers hired men at harvest as was needful xij d." 
Gray, op. cit. pp. 157, 172. 

^ Tusser, Fiue Hundred Poinies 0} Good Husbandrie, ed. W. Payne and 
S. J. Herrtage (Eng. Dialect. Soc. 1878), pp. 129-30. 


the board in the summer dusk. At the end of all, when the last 
sheaf was carried to the bam and the last gleaner had left the 
fields, the nuns entertained their harvesters to a mighty feast. 

It was a time for hard work and for good fellowship. Says 
Tusser : 

In haruest time, haruest folke, seruants and all, 

should make all togither good cheere in the hall : 
And fill out the black boule of bleith to their song, 

and let them be merie all haruest time long. 
Once ended thy haruest let none be begilde, 

please such as did helpe thee, man, woman and childe. 
Thus dooing, with alway such helpe as they can, 

those winnest the praise of the labouring man^. 

The final feast was associated with the custom of giving a goose 
to all who had not overturned a load in carrying during harvest, 
and the nuns of St Michael's always enter it in their accounts as 
"the expenses of the sickle goose" or harvest goose. 

For all this good feasting, yet art thou not loose 

till ploughman thou giuest his haruest home goose. 

Though goose go in stubble, I passe not for that, 

let goose haue a goose, be she leane, be she fat^. 

An echo of old English gaiety sounds very pleasantly through 
these harvest expenses. 

(5) The wages sheet. The last set of expenses which the 
monastic housewife entered upon her roll was the wages sheet 
of the household, the payments for the year, or for a shorter 
period, of all her male and female dependents, together with the 
cost of their hvery and of their allowance of "mixture," when 
the convent gave them these. We saw in the last chapter that 
the nuns were the centre of a small community of farm and 
household servants, ranging from the reverend chaplains and 
dignified bailiff through all grades of standing and usefulness, 
down to the smallest kitchen-maid and the gardener's boy. 

Such is the tale of the account rolls. It may be objected 
by some that this talk of tenement-building, and livestock, 
ploughshares and harvest-home has little to do with monastic 
life, since it is but the common routine of every manor. But 
this is the very reason for describing it. The nunneries of England 

1 Tusser, op. cit. p. 132. ^ lb. p. 181. 

130 WORLDLY GOODS [ch. hi 

were firmly founded on the soil and the nuns were housewives and 
ladies of the manor, as were their sisters in the world. This 
homely business was half their hves ; they knew the kine in the 
byre and the corn in the granary, as well as the service-books 
upon their stalls. The sound of their singing went up to heaven 
mingled with the shout of the ploughmen in the field and the 
clatter of churns in the dairy. When a prioress' negligence lets 
the sheepfold fall into disrepair, so that the young lambs die 
of the damp, it is made a charge against her to the bishop, 
together with more spiritual crimes. The routine of the farm goes 
on side by side with the routine of the chapel. These account 
rolls give us the material basis for the complicated structure 
of monastic life. This is how nuns won their livehhood; this is 
how they spent it. 



Some respit to husbands the weather may send, 
But huswiues affaires haue neuer an end. 

TussER, Fiue Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie (1573). 

Every monastic house may be considered from two points of 
view, as a religious and as a social unit. From the religious 
point of view it is a house of prayer, its centre is the church, its 
raison d'etre the daily round of offices. From the social point of 
view it is a community of human beings, who require to be fed 
and clothed ; it is often a landowner on a large scale ; it maintains 
a more or less elaborate household of servants and dependents ; 
it runs a home farm; it buys and sells and keeps accounts. 
The nun must perforce combine the functions of Martha and 
of Mary; she is no less a housewife than is the lady of the 
manor, her neighbour. The monastic routine of bed and board 
did not work without much careful organisation ; and it is worth 
while to study the method by which this organisation was carried 

The daily business of a monastery was in the hands of a 
number of officials, chosen from among the older and more 
experienced of the inmates and known as obedientiaries. These 
obedientiaries, as Mr C. T. Flower has pointed out in a useful 
article^, fall into two classes : (i) executive officials, charged with 
the general government of a house, such as the abbess, prioress, 
subprioress and treasuress, and (2) nuns charged with particular 
functions, such as the chantress, sacrist, fratress, infirmaress, 

^ C. T. Flower, Obedientiars' Accounts of Glastonbury and other Religious 
Houses (St Paul's Ecclesiological Soc. vol. vii, pt 11 (1912)), pp. 50-62. The 
nunnery accounts described include accounts of the Abbess of Elstow 
(22 Hen. VII), the Prioress of Delapre (4 and 9 Hen. VII), the Cellaress of 
Barking, the Cellaress of Syon, the Sacrist of Syon and the Chambress of 
Syon. On obedientiaries and their accounts in general, see the introduction 
to Compotus Rolls of the Obedientiaries of St Swithun's Priory, Winchester , 
ed. G. W. Kitchin (Hants. Rec. Soc. 1892). 



mistress of the novices, chambress and cellaress. The number 
of obedientiaries differed with the size of the house. In large 
houses the work had naturally to be divided among a large 
number of of&cials and those whose offices were heaviest had 
assistants to help them. A hst of the twenty-six nuns of Romsey 
in 1502, for instance, distinguishes besides the abbess, a prioress, 
subprioress, four chantresses, an almoness, cellaress, sacrist 
and four subsacrists, kitcheness, fratress, infirmaress and mis- 
tress of the school of novices^- But in a small house there was 
less need of differentiation, and though complaint is sometimes 
made of the doubling of offices (perhaps from jealousy or a 
desire to participate in the doubtful sweets of office), one nun 
must often have performed many functions. It is common, for 
instance, to find the head of the house acting as treasuress, a 
practice which undoubtedly had its dangers. 

The following were the most important obedientiaries, whose 
duties are distinguished in the larger convents. ( i) The Treasuress, 
or more often two treasuresses. Her duty was to receive aU the 
money paid, from whatever source, to the house and to super- 
intend disbursements; she had the general management of busi- 
ness and held the same position as a college bursar to-day. 
(2) The Chaniress or Precentrix had the management of the 
church services, trained the novices in singing and usually looked 
after the library. (3) The Sacrist had the care of the church 
fabric, with the plate, vestments and altar cloths and of the 
lighting of the whole house, for which she had to buy the wax 
and tallow and wicks and hire the candle-makers. (4) The 
Fratress had charge of the frater or refectorj?, kept the chairs 
and tables in repair, purchased the cloths and dishes, super- 
intended the laying of meals and kept the lavatory clean. (5) The 
Almoness had charge of the almsgiving. (6) The Chambress 
ordained everything to do with the wardrobe of the nuns; the 
Additions to the Rules of Syon thus describe her work: 

The Chaumbress schal haue al the clothes in her warde, that perteyne 
to the bodyly araymente of sustres and brethern, nyghte and day, 
in ther celles and fermery, as wel of lynnen as of wollen ; schap5mge, 

^ Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, p. 236. At St Mary's Winchester at 
the same date the 14 nuns included the abbess, prioress, subprioress, 
infirmaress, precentrix and three sub-chantresses, scrntatrix, dogmatista and 
hbrarian. V.C.H. Hants. 11, p. 124. 


sewynge, makyng, repa3ayng and kepyng them from wormes, 
schakyng them by the help of certayne sustres depute to her, that 
they be not deuoured and consumed of moughtes. So that sche schal 
puruey for canuas for bedyng, fryses, blankettes, schetes, bolsters, 
pelowes, couerlites, cuschens, basens, stamens, rewle cotes, cowles, 
mantelles, wymples, veyles, crounes, pynnes, cappes, nyght kerchyfes, 
pylches, mantel furres, cuffes, gloues, hoses, schoes, botes, soles, 
sokkes, mugdors, gyrdelles, purses, knyues, laces, poyntes, nedelles, 
threde, wasching bolles and sope and for al suche other necessaryes 
after the disposicion of the abbes, whiche in no wyse schal be ouer 
curyous, but playne and homly, witheoute weuynge of any straunge 
colours of sylke, golde, or syluer, hauynge al thynge of honeste and 
profyte, and nothyng of vanyte, after the rewle; ther knyues un- 
poynted and purses beyng double of lynnen clothe and not of sylke^. 

(7) The Cellaress looked after the food of the house and the 
domestic servants, and usually superintended the management 
of the home farm. It was her business to lay in all stores, 
obtaining some from the home farm and some by purchase in 
the village market, or at periodical fairs. She had to order the 
meals, to engage and dismiss servants and to see to all repairs. 
As one writer very well says, her "manifold duties appear to 
have been a combination of those belonging to the offices of 
steward, butler and farmer's vsdfe"^. The Rules of Syon again 
deserves quotation: 

The Celeres schal puruey for mete and drynke for seke and hole, and 
for mete and drynke, clothe and wages, for seruantes of householde 
outwarde, and sche shall haue all the vessel and stuffe of housholde 
under her kepynge and rewle, kepynge it klene, hole and honeste. 
So that whan sche receyueth newe, sche moste restore the olde to the 
abbes. Ordenyng for alle necessaryes longynge to al houses of offices 
concernyng the bodyly fode of man, in the bakhows, brewhows, 
kychen, buttry, pantry, celer, freytour, fermery, parlour and suche 
other, bothe outewarde and inwarde, for straungers and dwellers, 
attendyng diligently that the napery and al other thynge in her office 
be honest, profitable and plesaunte to al, after her power, as sche 
is commaunded by her souere}Tie^. 

A very detailed set of instructions how to cater for a large abbey 
is to be found in a Barking document called the Charthe 
longynge to the office of the Celer esse of the Monastery e of Barkinge^. 
(8) The Kitcheness superintended the kitchen, under the direction 

1 Aungier, Hist, of Syon Mon. p. 392. 

2 Myroure of Oure Ladye, ed. Blunt (E.E.T.S.), introd. p. xxviii. 

' Aungier, op. cit. pp. 392-3. "* See below. Note A. 


of the cellaress. (9) The Infirmaress had charge of the sick in 
the infirmary; the author of the Additions to the Rules of Syon, 
a person of all too vivid imagination, charges her often to 

chaunge ther beddes and clothes, geue them medycynes, ley to ther 
piastres and mynyster to them mete and drynke, fyre and water 
and al other necessaryes, nyghte and day, as nede requyrethe, after 
counsel of the phisicians,...not squames to wasche them, and wype 
them, nor auoyde them, not angry nor hasty, or unpacient thof one 
haue the vomet, another the fluxe, another the frensy, which nowe 
syngethe, now wel apayde, fior ther be some sekenesses vexynge 
the seke so gretly and prouokynge them to ire, that the mater drawen 
up to the brayne alyenthe the mendes^. 

(10) The Mistress of the Novices acted as schoolmistress to the 
novices, teaching them all that they had to learn and super- 
intending their general behaviour. 

Certain of these obedientiaries, more especially the cellaress, 
chambress and sacrist, had the control and expenditure of part 
of the convent's income, because their departments involved 
a certain number of purchases; indeed while the treasuress acted 
as bursar, the housekeeping of the convent was in the hands 
of the cellaress and chambress. Every well organised nunnery 
therefore divided up its revenues, allocating so much to the 
church, so much to clothing, so much to food, etc. Rules for 
the disposition of the income of a house were sometimes drawn 
up by a more than usually thrifty treasuress for the guidance 
of her successors, and kept in the register or chartulary of the 
nunnery. The Register of Crabhouse Priory contains one such 
document written (in the oddest French of Stratford-atte-Bowe) 
during the second half of the fourteenth century : 

"The wise men of religion who have possessions," says this careful 
dame, "consider according to the amount of their goods how much 
they can spend each year and according to the sum of their income 
they ordain to divers necessities their portions in due measure. And 
in order that when the time comes the convent should not fail to 
have what is necessary according to the sum of our goods, we have 
ordained their portions to divers necessary things. To wit, for bread 
and beer, all the produce of our lands and tenements in Tilney and 
all the produce of our half church of St Peter in Wiggenhall, and, if 
it be necessary, all the produce of our land in Gyldenegore. For meat 
and fish and for herrings and for feri and asser^ and for cloves is set 

^ Aungier, op. cit. p. 395. 

2 I have been unable to discover what is meant by feri and assey. 


aside all the produce of our houses and rents in Lynn and in North 
Lynn and in Gaywood. For clothing and shoes all the produce of our 
meadow in Setchy,...and the remnant of the land in Setchy and 
in West Winch is ordained for the purchase of salt. For the prioress' 
chamber, for tablecloths and towels and tabites'^ in linen and saye, 
and for other things which are needed for guests and for the house- 
hold, is set aside all the produce of our land and tenements in Thorpland 
and in Walhngton. For the repair of our houses and of our church 
in Crabhouse and for sea dykes and marsh dykes and for the wages 
of our household and for other petty expenses is ordained all the 
produce of our lands, tenements and rents in Wiggenhall, with the 
exception of the pasture for our beasts and of our fuel. Similarly 
the breeding of stock, and all the profits which may be drawn from 
our beasts in Tilney, in Wiggenhall and in Thorpland, and in all 
other places {saving the stock for our larder, and draught-beasts 
for carts and ploughs and saving four-and-twenty cows and a bull) 
are assigned and ordained for the repair of new houses and new 
dykes, to the common profit of the house-." 

This practice of earmarking certain sources of income may 
be illustrated from almost any monastic chartulary, for it was 
common for benefactors to earmark donations of land and rent 
to certain special purposes, more especially for the clothing of the 
nuns, for the support of the infirmary, or for a special pittance 
from the kitchen ^. Similarly bishops appropriating churches to 
monastic houses sometimes set aside the proceeds for special pur- 
poses*. The result of the practice was that the obedientiaries of 
certain departments, more especially the ceUaress.chambress and 

1 Tdbite was a sort of moiri silk. Probably carpets or tablecloths here. 

^ Register of Crabhouse Nunnery, ed. M. Bateson (Norfolk Archaeology, 
XI, 1892), pp. 38-g. 

' See, for instance, the Godstow Register; charters nos. ro5, 139, 556 
and 644 concern grants appropriated to clothing and nos. 52, 250, 536, 
6r9 and 630 to the infirmary No. 862 is a grant of five cartloads of alder- 
wood yearly "to be take xv dayes after myghelmasse to drye their heryng." 
Eng. Reg. of Godstow Nmmery.ed. A. C\^T'k(^.'E.T: .S. 1 905-11), pp. 102, etc. In 
the Craiahouse Register it is noted that a certain meadow is set aside so that 
"all the produce of the said meadow be forever granted for the vesture of 
the ten ladies who are oldest in religion of the whole house, so that each of 
the ten ladies receive yearly from the aforesaid meadow four shillings at the 
feast of St Margaret." Op, cit. p. 37. When Wothorpe was merged in St 
Michael's, Stamford, the diocesan stipulated that the proceeds of the priory 
and rectory of Wothorpe should be applied to the support of the infirmary 
and kitchen of St Michael's. Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 268. 

* See, for instance, the payment of a yearly pension of five marks from 
the appropriated church of St Clement's for the clothing of the nuns of 
St Radegund's, Cambridge, and similar assignations of the income from 
appropriated churches at Studley, St Michael's Stamford, and Marrick. 
Gray, Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge, p. 27. 


sacrist, had to keep careful accounts of their receipts and ex- 
penditure, which were submitted annually to the treasuress, when 
she was making up her big account. Very few separate obedien- 
tiaries' accounts survive for nunneries, partly because the majority 
were small and the treasuress not infrequently acted as cellaress 
and did the general catering herself. CeUaresses' accounts, how- 
ever, survive for Syon and Barking, chambresses' accounts for 
Syon and St Michael's Stamford (the latter merely recording the 
payment to the nuns of their allowances) and sacrists' accounts 
for Syon and Elstowi. In one column these accounts set out 
the sources from which the office derives its income. This might 
come to the obedientiary in one of two ways, either directly 
from the churches, manors or rents appropriated to her, or by 
the hands of the treasuress, who received and paid her the rents 
due to her office, or if no revenues were appropriated to it, 
allocated her a lump sum out of the general revenues of the 
house. Thus at Syon the cellaress drew her income from the sale 
of hides, oxhides and fleeces (from slaughtered animals and sheep 
at the farm), the sale of wood, and the profits of a dairy farm 
at Isleworth, while the chambress simply answered for a sum 
of £io paid to her by the treasuresses. In another column the 
obedientiary would enter her expenditure. This might take two 
forms. According to the Benedictine rule and to the rule of 
the newly founded and strict Brigittine house of Syon, all 
clothes and food were provided for the nuns by the chambress 
and cellaress ; and accordingly their accounts contain a complete 
picture of the communal housekeeping. In the later middle 
ages, however, it became the almost universal custom to pay the 
nuns a money allowance instead of clothing, a practice which 
deprived the office of chambress of nearly all its duties and 
possibly accounts for the rarity of chambresses' account roUs. The 
Syon chambress' account is an example of the first or regular 
method; the St Michael's, Stamford, account of the second. More 
rarely the nuns received money allowances for a portion of their 
food. The growth of this custom of paying money allowances 

' See C. T. Flower, loc. cit., for an account of the Syon, Barking and 
Elstow accounts; also Blunt, Myroure of Onre Ladye, introd. pp. xxvi— xxxi, 
for Syon chambresses' and cellaresses' accounts (1536-7) and P.R.O. Mins. 
Accts. 1261/4 for a Syon cellaress's account (1481-2). See P.R.O. Mins. 
Accts. 1260/14 f°r a St Michael's Stamford chambress's account (1408-9). 


will be described in a later chapter^; here it will suffice to con- 
sider the housekeeping of a nunnery in which that business was , 
entirely in the hands of the chambress and cellaress. 

The accounts throw an interesting hght on the provision of 
clothes for a convent and its servants. An account of Dame 
Bridget Belgrave, chambress of Sj'on (who had to look after 
the brothers as well as the sisters of the house) has survived 
for the year 1536-7. It shows her buying "russettes," "white 
clothe," "kerseys," "gryce," "Holand cloth and other lynen 
cloth," paying for the spinning of hemp and flax, for the weaving 
of cloth, for the dressing of calves' skins and currying of leather, 
and for 3000 "pynnes of dyuerse sortes." She pays wages to 
"the yoman of the warderobe," "the grome," the skinner and 
the shoemakers and she tips the "sealer" of leather in the 
market place^. Treasuresses' accounts also often give interesting 
information about the purchase and making up of various kinds 
of material. At St Radegund's, Cambridge, the nuns were in 
receipt of an annual dress allowance, but the house made many 
purchases of stuff for the livery of its household and in 1449-50 
the account records payments 

to a certain woman hired to spin 21 lbs. of wool, i2d.; and to Alice 
Pavyer hired for the same work, containing in the gross 36 lbs . of woollen 
thread 65. ; and paid to Roger Rede of Hinton for warping certain 
woollen thread \\d. ; and to the same hired to weave 77 eUs of woollen 
cloth for the livery of the servants 3s. $d.; and paid to the wife of 
John Howdelowe for fulling the said cloth 35. (id. ; and paid to acertain 
shearman for shearing (i.e. finishing the surface of) the said cloth 14^1^. 

The next year the nuns make similar payments for cleaning, 
spinning, weaving, warping, fulling and shearing wool (an inter- 
esting illustration of the subdivision of the cloth industry) and 
disburse gs. gt^. to William Judde of St Ives for dyeing and 
making up this cloth into green and blue hveries for the servants 
of the house*. 

The cellaresses' accounts, which show us how the nun-house- 
keeper catered for the community, are even more interesting 
than the chambresses' accounts. The convent food was derived 
from two main sources, from the home farm and from purchase. 
The home farm was usually under the management of the 

i^See below, Ch. viii. = Blunt, op. cit. pp. xxvi-xxviii. 

''Gray, op. cit. pp. 149, 165, 167. 


cellaress and provided the house with the greater part of its 
meat, bread, beer and vegetables, and with a certain amount of 
dairy produce (butter, cheese, eggs, chickens). Anything which 
the farm could not produce iiad to be bought, and in particular 
three important articles of consumption, to wit the salt and 
dried fish eaten during the winter and in Lent, the salt for the 
great annual meat-salting on St Martin's day, and the spices and 
similar condiments used so freely in medieval cooking and eaten 
by convents more especially in Lent, to relieve the monotony 
of their fasting fare. The nuns of St Radegund's, Cambridge, 
used to get most of their salt fish at Lynn, whence it was brought 
up by river to Cambridge. From the accounts of 1449-51 it 
appears that the senior ladies made the occasion one for a 
pleasant excursion. There is a jovial entry in 1450-1 concerning 
the carriage by water from Lynn to Cambridge of one barreP 
and a half of white herrings, two cades^ of red herrings, two 
cades of smelts, one quarter of stockfish and one piece of timber 
called " a Maste " out of which a ladder was to be made (2s. ^d.), 
together with the fares and food of Dame Joan Lancaster, Dame 
Margaret Metham, Thomas Key (the bailiff) and Elene Herward 
of Lynn to Cambridge (2s. 8^.). Another entry displays to us 
Dame Joan Lancaster bargaining for the smelts and the stock- 
fish at Lynn. Fish was usually bought from one John Ball of 
Lynn, who seems to have been a general merchant of considerable 
custom, for the nuns also purchased from him all the linen which 
they needed for towels and tablecloths, and some trenchers. 
Occasionally, also, however, they purchased some of their fish 
at one or other of the fairs held in the district; in 1449-50 they 
thus bought 8 warp3 of ling and 6 warp of cod from one John 
Antyll at Ely fair and 14 warp of ling from the same man at 
Stourbridge fair, an interesting illustration of how tradesmen 
travelled from fair to fair. At St John Baptist's fair in the same 
year they bought a horse for 9s. 6d., 2 qrs. 5 bushels of salt 
some timber boards and three "pitcheforke staves." In the 
following year they bought timber, pewter pots, a churn, 10 lbs 
of soap and 3 lbs. of pepper at the famous fair of Stourbridge 

^ A barrel contained ten great hundreds of six score each. 
' A cade contained six great hundreds of six score each. 
" A warp was a parcel of four dried fish. 


and salt and timber at the fair of St John Baptist. In 1481-2 
they bought salt fish, salt, iron nails, paper, parchment and 
' 'other necessities " at the fairs of Stourbridge and of St Etheldreda 
the Virgin^. 

The fish-stores illustrate a side of medieval housekeeping, 
which is unfamiliar to-day. Fresh fish was eaten on fish-days 
whenever it could be got. Most monastic houses had fishing 
rights attached to their demesnes, or kept their own fish-pond 
or stew. The nuns of St Radegund's had fishing rights in a certain 
part of the Cam known as late as 1505 as "Nunneslake"^. But 
a great deal of dried and salted fish was also eaten. In their 
storehouse the nuns always kept a supply of the dried cod known 
as stockfish for their guest-house and for the frater during the 
winter. It was kept in layers on canvas and was so dry that it 
had to be beaten before it could be used ; it is supposed to have 
derived its name from the stock on which it was beaten, or, as 
Erasmus preferred to say, "because it nourisheth no more than 
a dried stock "^. For Lent the chief articles of food were herrings 
and salt sahnon, but the list of salt store purchased by the 
cellaress of Syon in 1536-7 shows a great variety of fish, to 
wit 200 dry Ungs, 700 dry haberden (salted cod), 100 "Iceland 
fish," I barrel of salt salmon, i barrel of [white] herring, i cade 
of red herring and 420 lbs. of "stub" eels*. The chief food 
during Lent, besides bread and salt fish, was dried peas, which 
could be boiled or made into pottage. Thus Skelton complains 
of the monks of his day : 

Saltfysshe, stocfysshe, nor heryng, 
It is not for your werynge; 
Nor in holy Lenton season 
Ye wyll nethyr benes ne peason^. 

' Gray, op. cit. See the accounts, pp. 145-79 passim. ^ lb. pp. lo-ii. 

' Catholicon Anglicum, ed. S. J. Herrtage (E.E.T.S. 1881), p. 365. 

* Blunt, op. cit. p. XXX. In 1481-2 their Lenten store included "salt- 
fysshe," "stokfyssh," "white heryng," "rede haryng," "muddefissh," 
"lyng," "aburden," "Scarburgh fysshe," "saltsamon," "saltelys," "oyle 
olyue" (34f gallons), a barrel oi honey and figs. At other times this year 
the cellaress purchased beans (i qr. 4 bushels), green peas (7 bushels), 
"grey" (i.e. dried) peas (4 bushels), "harreos" (3 bushels), oatmeal (2 qrs. 
7 bushels), bread, wheat, malt, various animals for meat and to stock the 
farm, a kilderkin of good ale, 15 lbs. of almonds, 39 Essex cheeses, iiij 
gallons of butter, white salt and bay salt, also firewood and coals. P.R.O. 
Mins. Accts. 1261/4. 

5 Poems of John Skelton, ed. W. H. Williams, pp. 107-8 (from "Colyn 


In Lent also were eaten dried fruits, in particular almonds and 
raisins and figs, the latter being sometimes made into little pies 
called risschewes'^. The nuns of Syon purchased olive oil and 
honey with their other Lenten stores. The list of condiments 
which they bought during the year, for ordinary cooking pur- 
poses, or for consumption as a relief to their palates in Lent, 
or as a pittance on high days and holidays, includes, in 1536-7, 
sugar (749flb.), nutmegs (18 lb.), almonds (500 lb.), currants 
(41b.), ginger (61b.), isinglass (100 lb.), pepper (61b.), cinna- 
mon (i lb.), cloves (i lb.), mace (i lb.), saffron (2 lb.), rice 
(3 qrs.), together with figs, raisins and prunes^. Surely the poor 
clown, whom Autolycus relieved so easily of his purse, was 
sent to stock a convent storehouse, not to furnish forth a 
sheep-shearing feast and the sister who sent him was a sister 
in Christ: 

Let me see, what am I to buy. . . ? Three pound of sugar ; five pound of 
currants; rice, — what will this sister of mine do with rice?... I must 
have saffron, to colour the warden pies; mace, dates, — none; that's 
out of my note; nutmegs seven; a race or two of ginger, — but that 
I may beg; — four pound of prunes and as many of raisins of the sun^. 

Lent fare was naturally not very pleasant, for all the mitiga- 
tions of almonds and figs. At other times of the year the convent 
ate on fish-days fresh fish, when they could get it, otherwise 
dried or salt fish, and on meat-days either beef or some form of 
pig's flesh, eaten fresh as pork, cured and salted as bacon, or 
pickled as sowce*. Mutton was also eaten, though much more 
seldom, for the sheep in the middle ages was valued for its wool, 
rather than for its meat, and was indeed a scraggy Uttle animal, 
until the discovery of winter crops and the experiments of 
Bakewell revolutionised stock-breeding and the English food- 
supply in the eighteenth century. The nuns also had fowls on 
festive occasions, eggs, cheese and butter from the dairy and 

Cloute," 11. 210-13). For the curious custom of eating dried peas on the 
fifth Sunday in Lent, called Passion or Care Sunday, see Brand, Observations 
on Popular A ntiquities (i877ed),pp.57fi. In the north of England peas boiled 
on Care Sunday were called carlings. Compare the St Mary de Pre (St Al- 
bans) accounts (2—4 Hen. VII) " Item paid for ij busshell of pesyn departyd 
amongs the susters in Lente xvj d." Dugdale, Man. in, p. 359, and the 
Barking cellaress' Charthe, below, Note A. 

^ See below, p. 568. ^ Blunt, op. oil. pp. xxx-xxxi. 

' Shakespeare, Winter's Tale, iv, ii, 38 sqq. 

* For sowce, see below, p. 565. 


vegetables from the garden. The staple allowance of bread and 
beer made on the premises was always provided by the convent, 
even when the nuns had a money allowance to cater for them- 
selves in other articles of food^. Some idea of the menu of an 
average house is given in the Syon rule : 

For the siistres and brethren sche [the cellaress] shal euery day for 
the more parte ordeyne for two maner of potages, or els at leste for 
one gode and that is best of alle. If ther be two, that one be sewe 
[broth] of flesche and fische, after [according to what] the day is ; and 
that other of wortes or herbes, or of any other thing that groweth in the 
yerthe, holsom to the body, as whete, ryse, otemele, peson and suche 
other. Also sche schal ordeyne for two sundry metes, of flesche and 
of fysche, one fresche, another powdred [salted], boyled, or rosted, 
or other wyse dyghte, after her discrecion, and after the day, tyme 
and nede requyreth, as the market and purse wylle stretche. And 
thys schal stonde for the prebende, which is a pounde of brede, welle 

weyed, -ivith a potel of ale and a messe of mete On fysche dayes sche 

schal ordeyn for whyte metes, yf any may be hadde after the rewle, 
be syde fysche metes, as it is before seyd. Also, ones a wyke at the 
leste, sche schal ordeyn that the sustres and brethren be serued withe 
newe brede, namely on water dayes, but neuer withe newe ale, nor 
palled or ouer sowre, as moche as sche may. For supper sche schal 
ordeyn for some lytel sowpyng, and for fysche and whyte mete, or for 
any other thynge sufired by the rewle, lyghte of dygestyon equyua- 
lente, and as gode to the bodyly helthe....On water dayes sche schal 
ordeyne for bonnes or newe brede, water grewel, albreys and for two 
maner of froytes at leste yf it may be, that is to say, apples, peres 
or nuttes, plummes, chiryes, benes, peson, or any suche other, and 
thys in competent mesure, rosten or sothen, or other wyse dyghte 
to the bodyly helthe, and sche must se that the water be sothen with 
browne brede in maner of a tysan, or withe barley brede, for coldenes 
and feblenes of nature, more thys dayes, than in dayes passed regnynge^. 

1 The weekly allowance of beer to each member was supposed to be 
seven gallons, four of the better sort and three weaker, but the amount 
varied from house to house. See Line. Visit. II, p. 89 (note). The Syon nuns 
had water on certain days, but doubtless as a mortification of the flesh, 
for it was sometimes complained of as a hardship when nuns had to drink 
water. ("Item they say that they do not get their corrody (i.e. weekly 
allowance of bread and beer) at the due times, but it is sometimes omitted 
for a fortnight and sometimes for a month, so that the nuns, by reason of 
the non-payment of the corrody, drink water." Test. Ebor. i, p. 284.) The 
weekly allowance of bread was seven loaves. A note in the Register of 
Shaftesbury Abbey (15th century) which then numbered about 50 nuns 
and a large household, says : " Hit is to wytyng that me baketh and breweth 
by the wike in the Abbey of Shaftesbury atte leste weye xxxvj quarters 
whete and malt. And other while me baketh and breweth xlj quarters and 
ij bz. whete and malte." Dugdale, Mon. 11, p. 473. 

2 Aungier, op. cit. pp. 393-4- 


On certain special days the nuns received a pittance, or extra 
allowance of food, sometimes taking the shape of some special 
dehcacy consecrated to the day. On Shrove Tuesday they often 
had the traditional pancakes, or fritters, called crisps at Barking^ 
zxidflawnes at St Michael's, Stamford^. Maundy Thursday, other- 
wise called Shere Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) was 
the great almsgiving day of the year. On this day the kings 
and queens of England, as well as the greatest dignitaries of 
the church and of the nobiUty, were accustomed to give gowns, 
food and money to the poor, who clustered round their gates 
in expectance of the event, and ceremonially to wash the feet 
of a certain number of poor men and women, to commemorate 
Christ's washing of His disciples' feet. Benefactors who left land 
to monastic houses for purposes of almsgiving often specified 
Maundy Thursday as the day on which the alms were to be 
distributed. It was customary also for monks and nuns to 
receive a pittance on this day ; and welcome it must have been 
after the long Lenten fast. The nuns of Barking had baked 
eels, with rice and almonds and wine. The nuns of St Mary de 
Pr6 (St Albans) had "Maundy ale" and "Maundy money" 
given to them. The nuns of St Michael's, Stamford, had beer 
and wafers and spices^. There was always a feast on Christmas 

^ See below, p. 568. 

" They are diversely defined as pancakes, cheese cakes or custards, but 
they differed from our pancakes in being made in crusts. See the recipe ia 
Liher Cure Cocontm for flawns made vdth cheese : 

Take new chese and grynde hj^ fayre. 

In morter with egges, without dysware; 

Put powder therto of sugur, I say, 

Coloure hit with safrone ful wele thou may; 

Put hit in cofyns that ben fayre. 

And bake hit forthe, I the pray. 
IJber Cure Cocorum, ed. Morris (Phil. Soc. 1862), p. 39. A fifteenth 
century cookery book gives this recipe for Flathouns in lente: "Take and 
draw a thrifty Milke of Almandes; temper with Sugre Water; than take 
hardid cofyns [pie-crusts] and pore thin comad [mixture] theron; blaunch 
Almaundis hoi and caste theron Ponder Gyngere, Canelle, Sugre, Salt and 
Safroun; bake hem and serue forth." Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books, 
ed. T. Austen (E.E.T.S. 1888), p. 56. 

' For Maundy Thursday, see Brand, op. cit. pp. 75-9. For the Barking 
Maundy see below, p. 568, for the St Mary de Pr6 Maundy see Dugdale, 
Mon. m, p. 359, and for the St Michael's, Stamford, Maundy, see P.R.O. 
Mins. Accts. 1260 passim. The nuns of St Radegund's owned certain lands 
in Madingley which were held by the Prior of Barnwell on payment of a 
rent of 2s. ^d., called "Maundy silver." Gray, op. cit. p. 146. Maundy 
money is still distributed at Magdalen College, Oxford. 


day and on most of the great feasts of the church and the various 
feasts connected wdth the Virgin. There was a pittance on the 
dedication day of the convent and sometimes on other saints' 
days. There were also pittances on the anniversaries of bene- 
factors who had left money for this purpose to the convent, 
and sometimes also on profession-days, which were " the official 
birthdays of the nuns"i. In the monotonous round of convent 
life these little festivities formed a pleasant change and were 
looked forward to with ardour; in some of the larger houses a 
special obedientiary known as the Pittancer had charge over 

Food is one of the housekeeper's cares ; servants are another ; 
and between them they must have wrinkled many a ceUaress' 
brow, though the servant problem at least was a less complicated 
one in the middle ages than it is to-day. The persons to' whom 
regular yearly wages were paid by a convent fall into four ^ 
classes: (i) the chaplains, (2) the administrative officials, steward, 
rent -collectors, bailiff, (3) the household staff and (4) the hinds 
and farm-servants. 

' See below, p. 566, for the Barking pittances. The following extracts 
from one of the St Michael's, Stamford, accounts is typical of the rest: 
"Item paid for wassail 4c?.... paid to the convent on the Feast of St Michael 
and the dedication of the church 6s. Item paid for... on All Saints Day and 
St Martin's Day 3s. Item paid for a pittance of pork on two occasions 6s. 
Item paid for fowls at Christmas for the convent 55. 6d. Item paid for 
herrings on St Michael's Day for the poor is, 8^^. Item paid for beer for the 
convent on Maundy Thursday {Jour de Cene) lod. Item paid for bread and 
wafers on the same day 6d. Item paid for spices on the same day 3s. Item 
paid for herrings for the poor on the same day is. Sd. Item given to the poor 
on the same day is. gd. Item for holy bread on Good Friday 2d. Item paid 
for fflaunes 2d. Item paid for herrings on St Laurence's Day gd." P.R.O. 
Mins. Accts. 1260/11. At this convent "holy bread" was always brought for 
Good Friday, " flaunes " (or sometimes eggs, saffron and spices to make them) 
for Rogationtide, beer and spices on Maundy Thursday, herrings on St Law- 
rence's Day, and various money pittances were paid to the nuns from time 
to time for the misericord of Corby and sometimes of Thurlby, the appro- 
priated churches. On one occasion there is an entry "Paid to the convent 
for the misericord of Thurlby, to wit 28 fowls, 12 gallons of beer and mustard 
and a gift to the prioress gs., paid to the convent for the misericord of Corby 
gs., paid to the pittancer for a pittance from Thurlby throughout the year 
14s. i\d." lb. 1260/3. See an interesting list of pittances payable on forty 
different feasts throughout the year to the nuns of Lillechurch or Higham : 
they are either extra portions of food or special sorts of food, e.g. "crepis" 
on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, "fiauns" on Easter Day and I2d. 
on St Radegund's Day. R. F. Scott, Notes from the Records of St John's Coll. 
Cambridge, ist series (from The Eagle, 1893, vol. xvii, no. loi, pp. 5-7). 


(i) The chaplains. The account rolls of a nunnery of average 
size usually contain payments to more than one priest. The nuns 
had to pay the stipend of their own chaplain or mass-priest, 
of any chaplains or vicars whom they were bound to provide 
for appropriated churches, and sometimes of a confessor. The 
number of chaplains naturally varied with the size of the house 
and with the number of appropriated churches. Great houses 
such as Barking, Shaftesbury and Wilton had a body of resident 
chaplains attached to the nunnery church and paid the stipends 
of priests ministering to appropriated parishes. Poor and small 
nunneries, such as Rusper, paid the fee of one resident chaplain. 
It is worthy of note that certain important and old established 
abbeys in Wessex had canons' prebends attached to their 
churches. At each of the abbey churches of Shaftesbury, St 
Mary's Winchester, Wherwell and Wilton there were four pre- 
bendary canons, at Romsey there were two (one of whom was 
known as sacrist). Moreover at Malhng in Kent there were two 
secular prebends, known as the prebends of magna missa maioris 
altaris and alta missa. These prebends were doubtless originally 
intended for the maintenance of resident chaplains, but as early 
as the thirteenth century the prebends were almost invariably 
held by non-residents and pluralists as sinecures, the reason 
being, as Mr Hamilton Thompson points out, "the rise in value 
of individual endowments and the consequent readiness of the 
Crown, as patron of the monasteries, to discover in them sources 
of income for clerks in high ofhce." Thus these great abbeys 
also followed the usual custom of hiring chaplains to celebrate 
in their churches, though some of the wealthier prebends 
were taxed with stipendiary payments towards the cost of 

The chaplain of a house usually resided on the premises, 
sometimes receiving his board from the nuns; occasionally in- 
ventories mention his lodgings, which were outside the nuns' 
cloister. Thus the Kilburn Dissolution inventory, after describing 
all the household offices, goes on to describe the three chambers 
for the chaplain and the hinds, the "confessor's chamber" and 

^ For these prebendal canonries see Mr Hamilton Thompson's article 
on "Double Monasteries and the Male Element in Nunneries," in The 
Ministry of Women, A Report by a Committee appointed by his Grace the 
Lord Archbishop of Canterbury , app. viii, pp. 150 sqq. 



(In the top left hand corner is a nun at confession; in the other corners are visions 
appearing to a nun at prayer.) 


the church 1. At Sheppey the chamber over the gatehouse was 
called "the confessor's chamber" and was furnished forthwith 

a hangyng of rede clothe, a paynted square sparver of lynen, with 
iij corteyns of lynyn clothe, a good fetherbed, a good bolster, a 
pece of blanketts and a good counterpeynt of small verder, in the 
lowe bed a fetherbed, a bolster, a pece of blanketts olde, and an image 
coverled, a greate joynyd chayer of waynscot, an olde forme, and 
a cressar of iron for the chymneye^. 

The relations between the nuns and their priest were doubtless' 
very friendly; he would be their guide, philosopher and friend, 
sometimes acting as custos of their temporal affairs and always 
ready with advice. 

Madame Eglentyne, it will be remembered, took three priests 
with her upon her eventful pilgrimage to Canterbury, and one 
was the never-to-be-forgotten Sir John, whom she mounted 
worse than his inimitable skill as a raconteur deserved: 

Than spak our host, with rude speche and bold 

And seyde un-to the Nonnes Freest anon, 

" Com neer, thou preest, com hider thou sir John, 

Tel us swich thing as may our hertes glade. 

Be bljrthe, though thou ryde up-on a Jade. 

What though thyn hors be bothe foule and lene. 

If he wol serve thee, rekke not a bene; 

Look that thyn herte be mery evermo." 

"Yis, sir" quod he, "yis, host, so mote I go. 

But I be mery, y-wis I wol be blamed " : — 

And right anon his tale he hath attamed. 

And thus he seyde unto us everichon, 

This swete preest, this goodly man, sir John'. 

Certainly the convent never went to sleep in a sermon which 
had the tale of Chauntecleer and Pertelote for its exemplum. 

Yet the nuns were not always happy in their priests. There 
is the case (not, it must be admitted, without its humour) of 
Sir Henry, the chaplain of Gracedieu in 1440-41. Sir Henry 
was an uncouth fellow, it seems, who was more at home in the 

1 Dugdale, Mon. 1:1, p. 424. 

2 Walcott, M. E. C. Inventories of... the Priory of Minster in Shepey 
(Arch. Cant. 1869), p. 30. This house paid stipends to three chaplains, one 
being "curat of the Paryshe churche"; a "Vycar's chamber" is described 
among what are obviously outljring buildings. At Cheshunt the " Prestes 
Chamber" contained a feather bed, with sheets and coverlet and a "celer 
of blewe cloth," valued at 45. lod. Cussans, Hist, of Herts. Hertford Hundred, 
II, p. 70. 

' Chaucer, Cant. Tales, Prologue of the Nonne Prestes Tale, 11. 3998 ff. 


stable than at the altar. He went out haymaking alone with 
the cellaress, and in the evening brought her back behind him, 
riding on the same lean jade. Furthermore "Sir Henry the 
chaplain busies himself with unseemly tasks , cleansing the stables, 
and goes to the altar without washing, staining his vestments. 
He is without devotion and irreverent at the altar and is of ill 
reputation at Loughborough and elsewhere where he has dwelt." 
Poor Sir Henry, — 

See, whiche braunes hath this gentil Freest, 
So greet a nekke, and swich a large breast ! 
He loketh as a sperhauk with his yen ; 
Him nedeth nat his colour for to dyen 
With brasil, ne with greyn of Portingale. 

The bishop swore him to "behave himself devoutly and reverently 
henceforward at the altar in making his bow after and before 
his masses"^. 

(2) The administrative officials. These varied in number with 
the size of the house and the extent of its possessions. The chief 
administrative official was the steward, who is not, however, 
found at all houses. Sometimes the office of steward was compli- 
mentary and the fee attached was nominal. The Valor Ecdesi- 
asticus shows that great men did not disdain the post; Andrew 
Lord Windsor was steward of the Minoresses without Aldgate, of 
Burnham and of Ankerwyke^. Henry Lord Daubeney was steward 
of Shaftesbury^, George Earl of Shrewsbury of Wilton*, Henry 
Marquess of Dorset of Nuneaton^, Sir Thomas Wyatt of Mailing*, 
Sir W. Percy of Hampole, Handale and Thicket', Lord Darcy 
of Swine*, the Earl of Derby of St Mary's Chester', and 
Mr Thomas Cromwell himself of Syon and Catesbyi". Some 
houses, such as Wilton, had more than one steward, and Syon 
maintained stewards as well as baihffs in most of the counties 
in which it had land. Some of these great men were obviously 
not working officials; but many of the houses maintained 
stewards at a good salary, who superintended their business affairs, 
kept the courts of their manors, and were sometimes lodged 

1 Line. Visit. II, pp. 120-1, 123. 

^ Valor. Eccles. i, p. 397, iv, p. 220. 

' lb. I, p. 276. 1 lb. II, p. 109. 

= lb. Ill, p. 75. 6 lb. I, p. 106. 

' lb. V, pp. 43, 87, 94. 8 lb. I, p. 114. 

'76. V, p. 206. 1° lb. I, p. 424, IV, p. 339. 


on the premises^. The larger houses also paid one or more 
receivers and rent -collectors and sometimes an auditor, but in 
the average house the most important administrative official 
was the bailiff. 

While large landowners kept bailiffs at each of the different 
manors which they held, most nunneries employed a single 
bailiff, an invaluable factotum who performed a great variety 
of business for them, besides collecting rents from their tenants 
and superintending the home farm. Thomas Key, the bailiff of 
St Radegund's Cambridge, 1449-51, is an active person; he 
receives a stipend of 13s. 4^. per annum and an occasional gift 
from the nuns ; he rides about collecting their rents in Cambridge- 
shire; he accompanies them to Lynn on the annual journey to 
buy the winter stock of salt fish, or sometimes goes alone; he 
can turn his hand to mending rakes and ladders (for which he 
gets Sd. for four days' work), or to making the barley mows at 
harvest time, taking ^d. a day for his pains; and indeed he is 
regularly hired to work during harvest, at a fee of 6s. 8d. and 
two bushels of malt^. Often the bailiff's wife was also employed 
by the nuns; the nuns of Sheppey paid their bailiff, his wife and 
his servant all substantial salaries'. Some nunneries had a 
lodging set apart for him in the convent buildings, outside the 
nuns' cloister* 

Evidence often crops up from a variety of sources concerning 
the relations between the nuns and this important official. That 
these might be very pleasant can well be imagined. Sometimes 
a baihff of substance and standing will place his daughter in 
the nunnery which he serves^; sometimes when he dies he will 
remember it in his will *. But all bailiffs were not good and faithful 

1 E.g. in the Sheppey inventory, after "the chamber over the Gate 
Howse called the Confessor's Chamber," comes "the Chamber next to that," 
"the Steward's chamber" (well furnished), "the next chamber to the same," 
"the chamber under the same," and "the Portar's Lodge," all evidently 
outside the cloister. Walcott, M. E. C. op. oil. p. 31. 

2 Gray, op. cit. pp. 163, 167, 173. Of. pp. 156, 157, 158. 

3 Walcott, M. E. C. op. cit. pp. 30, 33. 

* E.g. Brewood (Black Ladies). See Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 500. 

^ A Joan Key or Kay votes at the election of Joan Lancaster as prioress 
of St Radegund's in 1457 and is receiver-general, keeping the account 
in 1481-2. Gray, op. cit. pp. 38, 176. 

" See, for instance, an item in the accounts of St Radegund's Cambridge : 
"Paid in a pittance for the convent. the month's mind of John Brown, 
lately bailiff there. accordance with his last will." Gray, op. cit. p. 151. 


servants. Mr Hamilton Thompson considers that male 
stewards and baihffs were often "responsible for the financial 
straits to which the nunneries of the fifteenth century were 
reduced, and. . .certainly did much to waste the goods of 
the monasteries, generally in their own interests "i. Such a 
man was Chaucer's Reeve, though he did not waste land, 
for the reason that one does not kill the goose that lays 
the golden eggs: 

His lordes sheep, his neet, his dayerye, 

His swyn, his hors, his stoor and his pultrye. 

Was hoolly in this reves governing, 

And by his covenaunt yaf the rekening... 

His woning was ful fair upon an heeth. 

With grene trees shad wed was his place. 

He coude bettre than his lord purchace. 

Ful riche he was astored prively. 

His lord wel coude he plesen subtilly. 

To yeve and lene him of his owne good. 

And have a thank, and yet a cote and hood^. 

Several records of law -suits are extant, in which prioresses are 
obhged to sue their bailiffs in the court of King's Bench for an 
account of their periods of service^, and visitation documents 
sometimes give a sorry picture of the convent bailiff. The baUiff 
of Godstow (1432) went about saying that there was no good 
woman in the nunnery*; the bailiff of Legbourne {1440) persuaded 
the prioress to sell him a corrody in the house and yet he "is 
not reckoned profitable to the house in that office, for several of 
his kinsfolk are serving folk in the house, who look out for 

' The Ministry 0/ Women, loc. cit. pp. 162-3. So in 1492 it is complained 
at Carrow "quod mali servientes Priorissae fecerunt magnum dampnum 
in bonis prioratus." Jessopp, Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich, p. 16. 

' Chaucer, Cant. Tales, Prologue, 11. 597 ff. 

' See, for instance, the Prioress of Marrick v. Simon Wayt, to give an 
account for the time when he was her bailiff in Fletham (1332); the Prioress 
of Molseby (Moxby)t;. Lawrence de Dysceford, chaplain, to give an account 
of the time when he was baUiff of Joan de Barton, late Prioress of Molseby 
at Molseby {1330) — an interesting case of a chaplain acting as bailiff for 
a small and poor house; Idonia, Prioress of Appleton v. John Boston of 
Leven for an account as bailiff and receiver in Holme ( 1 4 1 3 ) . Notes on Relig. 
and Secular Houses of York, ed. W. P. Baildon (Yorks. Arch. Soc. 1895), 
I, pp. 127, 139, 161. Visitation injunctions sometimes regulate the presenta- 
tion of accounts by bailiffs and receivers, e.g. Exeter Reg. Stapeldon, p. 318, 
V.C.H. Beds, i, p. 356. 

* Line. Visit, i, p. 67. 


themselves more than for the house "i ; the baihff of Redlingfield 
(1427) was the prioress's lover^. 

Romsey Abbey seems at various times to have been pecuHariy 
unfortunate in its administrative officials. In 1284 Archbishop 
Peckham had to write to the abbess Agnes Waierand and bid 
her remove two stewards, whom she had appointed in defiance 
of the wishes of the convent and who were to give an account 
of their offices to his ofiiciaP. At the close of the fifteenth 
century, when the abbey was in a very disorderly state under 
EUzabeth Broke, there was serious trouble again. In 1492 this 
Abbess was found to have fallen under the influence of one 
Terbock, whom she had made steward. She herself confessed 
that she owed him the huge sum of 80^. and the nuns declared 
that in part payment of it she had persuaded them to make over 
to him for three years a manor valued at 40/. and had given 
him a cross and many other things. His friends haunted her 
house, especially one John Write, who begged money from her 
for Terbock. The nuns suspected him of dishonesty, asked that 
the roUs of account for the years of his stewardship might be 
seen and declared that the house was brought to ill-fame by 
him*. In 1501 Ehzabeth Broke had fallen under the influence 
of another man, this time a priest called Master Bryce, but she 
died the next year. Her successor Joyce Rowse was equally 
unsatisfactory and equally unable to control her servants. 
Bishop Foxe's vicar-general in 1507 enjoined that a nun should 
be sought out and corrected for having frequent access, 
suspiciously and beyond the proper time, to the house of 
the bailiff of the monastery, and others who went with her 
were to be warned and corrected too; moreover he summoned 
before him Thomas Langton, Christopher George and Thomas 
Leycrofte, baiUffs, and Nicholas Newman, villicum agricultorem, 

1 Line. Visit. u, -p. 185. An illustration may be found in the Gracedieu rolls 
where on one occasion the nuns paid wages to the bailiff John de Northton, 
to his wife Joan, to his daughter Joan, to Philip de Northton (doubtless his 
son) and to Philip's wife Constance. P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1257/10, £f. 203-5. 

a V.C.H. Suffolk, II, p. 84. 

3 Reg. Epis. J. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), 11, pp. 658-9. Compare p. 662. The 
injunction that the head of the house should not appoint stewards, bailiflfs 
or receivers without the consent of the major part of the convent was a 
common one; cf. ih. 11, p. 652; Dugdale, Mon. ii, p. 619. 

* Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, pp. 218-22 passim. 


and admonished them to behave better in their offices on pain 
of removaP. 

(3) The household staff naturally varied in size with the size 
of the nunnery. The Rule of St Benedict contemplated the 
performance of a great deal if not all of the necessary domestic 
and agricultural work of a community by the monks themselves. 
But this tradition had been largely discarded by the thirteenth 
century, and if the nuns of a small convent are found doing their 
own cooking and housework, it is by reason of their poverty 
and they not infrequently complain at the necessity. They were 
of gentle birth and ill accustomed to menial tasks. The weekly 
service in the kitchen would seem to have disappeared completely. 
The larger houses employed a male cook, sometimes assisted by 
a page, or by his wife, and supervised by the cellaress, or by the 
kitcheness, where this obedientiary was appointed. There were 
also a maltster, to make malt, and a brewer and baker, to prepare 
the weekly ration of bread and ale; sometimes these offices were 
performed by men, sometimes by women. There was a deye or 
dairy-woman, who milked the cows, looked after the poultry, and 
made the cheeses. There was sometimes a lavender or laundress, 
and there were one or more women servants, to help with the 
housework and the brewing. The gate was kept by a male porter; 
and there was sometimes also a gardener. In large houses there 
would be more than one servant for each of these offices; in 
small houses the few servants were men or maids of all work 
and extra assistance was hired when necessary for making malt 
or washing clothes. In large houses it was not uncommon for 
each of the chief obedientiaries to have her own servant attached 
to her checker (office) and household, who prepared the meals 
for her mistress and for those nuns who formed her familia 
and messed with her. The head of the house nearly always had 
her private servant when its resources permitted her to do so, and 
sometimes when they did not. 

(4) The farm labourers. Finally every house which had at- 
tached to it a home farm had to pay a staff of farm labourers. 
These hinds, whose work was superintended by the baiUff and 
cellaress, always included one or two ploughmen, a cowherd and 
oxherd, a shepherd, probably a carter or two and some general 

' Liveing, op. cit. pp. 229-30, 232. 


labourers. Again the number varied very considerably according 
to the size of the house and was commonly augmented by hiring 
extra labour at busy seasons. The farm was cultivated partly 
by the work of these hired servants, partly by the services owed 
by the villeins. 

The nuns, with their domestic and farm servants, were the 
centre of a busy and sometimes large community, and a very 
good idea of their social function as employers may be gained 
from the lists of wage-earning servants to be found in account 
rolls or in Dissolution inventories. We may take in illustration 
the large and famous abbey of St Mary's, Winchester, and the 
Httle house of St Radegund's, Cambridge. St Mary's, Winchester, 
had let out the whole of its demesne in 1537, and the inventory 
drawn up by Henry VIII's commissioners therefore contains no 
list of farm labourers. The household consisted of the Abbess 
and twenty-six nuns, thirteen "poor sisters," twenty-six "chyl- 
dren of lordys knyghttes and gentylmen browght vp yn the sayd 
monastery," three corrodians and five chaplains, one of whom 
was confessor to the house, and twenty-nine officers and servants. 
The Abbess had her own household, consisting of a gentlewoman, 
a woman servant and a laundress, and the prioress, subprioress, 
sacrist and another of the senior nuns each had her private 
woman servant " yn her howse." There were also two laundresses 
for the convent. The male officers and servants were Thomas 
Legh, generall Receyver (who also held a corrody and had two 
little relatives at school in the convent), Thomas Tycheborne 
clerke (who likewise had two little girl relatives at school and 
a boy who will be mentioned), Lawrens Bakon, Curtyar (officer 
in charge of the secular buildings of the nunnery), George 
Sponder, Cater (caterer or manciple, who purchased the victuals 
for the community), WiUiam Lime, Botyler, Rychard Bulbery, 
Coke, John Clarke, Vndercoke, Richard Gefferey, Baker, May 
Wednall, convent Coke, John Wener, vndercovent Coke, John 
Hatmaker, Bruer, WyUiam Harrys, Myller, Wylham Selwod, 
porter, Robert Clerke, vnderporter, William plattyng, porter of 
Estgate, John Corte and Hery Beale, Churchemen, Peter Tyche- 
borne, Chyld of the hygh aulter, Rychard Harrold, seruaunt to 
the receyver and John Serle, seruaunt to the Clerke'^. 

1 Essays on Chaucer, 2nd Series, vn (Chaucer Soc), pp. 191-4.' also in 
Dugdale, Mon. 11, 456-7. 


St Radegund's, Cambridge, in 1450 was a much smaller com 
munity, numbering about a dozen nuns. In the treasurers 
accounts the wage-earning household is given as follows, togethe 
with the annual wages paid by the nuns. The confessor of th( 
house came from outside and was a certain friar named Rober 
Palmer, who received 6s. 8d. a year for his pains; they also paic 
a salary of 5I. a year to their mass-priest, John Herryson 
2S. 4^. to John Peresson, the chaplain celebrating (but onlj 
per vices, from time to time) at the appropriated church 
St Andrew's, and 13s. ^d. to the "clerk" of that church, a per 
manent official. Thomas Key, the invaluable baihff and rent 
collector mentioned above, got the rather small salary of 13s. ^d. 
but added to it by exactly half as much again during harvest 
Richard Wester, baker and brewer to the house, received 26s. 8^. 
John Cokke, maltster (and probably also cook, as his nam( 
suggests) received 13s. 4d. The women servants included om 
of those domestic treasures, who effectively run the happy house 
hold which possesses them, or which they possess: her name wa: 
Joan Grangyer and she is described as dairy-woman and purveyo 
or housekeeper to the Prioress; the nuns paid her 20s. in all 
including 6s. 8d. for her livery and 2s. ^d. as a special fee fo 
catering for the Prioress. Then there was Elianore Richemond 
who seems to have been an assistant dairy-maid, for in th' 
following year the nuns had replaced her by another woman 
hired "for aU manner of work in milking cows, making chees 
and butter," etc.; her wages were 8s. 4^., including a "reward' 
or gift of 20^. The other women servants were Elizabet] 
Charterys, who received 3s. id. for her linen and woollen clothe 
and her shoes, but no further wages, and Dionisia yerdwommar 
who received 9s. and doubtless did the rough work. This com 
pleted the domestic household of the nuns. Their hinds include 
three ploughmen, John Everesdon (26s. 8d.), Robert Page (i6s 
and John Slibre (13s. ^d. and 2S. 6d. for livery) ; the shepherc 
John Wyllyamesson, who received 22s. 8d. and 8d. for a pai 
of hose; the oxherd Robert Pykkell, who took 6s. 8d.; an 
Richard Porter, husbandman, who was hired to work froi 
Trinity Sunday to Michaelmas for 13s. 4^.1 

It will thus be seen that the size of a convent househol 
might vary considerably. The twenty-six nuns of St Mary 
' Gray, op. cit. p. 158; cf. p. 174. 


Winchester had gathered round themselves a large household 
of nine women servants, five male chaplains and twenty male 
officers and servants ; but they boarded and educated twenty-six 
children, gave three corrodies and supported thirteen poor sisters 
(who may however have done some of the work of the house). 
The twelve nuns of St Radegund's lived more economically, 
with three male and four female servants and six hinds, besides 
the chaplains; but even their household seems a sufficiently 
large one. The ten nuns of Wintney Priory employed two priests, 
a waiting maid for the prioress, nine other women servants and 
thirteen hinds'-- It is notable that the maintenance of a larger 
household than the revenues of the house could support is not 
infrequently censured in injunctions as responsible for its financial 
straits. At Nuncoton in 1440 the Prioress said that the house 
employed more women servants than was necessary^ and a 
century later Bishop Longland spoke very sternly against the 
same fault : 

that ye straight upon sight herof dymynishe the nombre of your 
seruants, as well men as women, which excessyve nombre that ye 
kepe of them bothe is con of the grette causes of your miserable 
pouertye and that ye are nott hable to mayntene your houshold 
nouther reparacons of the same, by reason whereof all falleth to 
ruyne and extreme decaye. And therefore to kepe noo moo thenne 
shalbe urged necessarye for your said house^. 

On the other hand many nunneries could by no means be 
charged with keeping up an excessive household. Rusper, which 
had leased all its demesnes, had only two women servants in 
its employ at the Dissolution*, and nuns sometimes complained 
to their visitors that they were too poor to keep servants and 
had to do the work of the house themselves, to the detriment 
of their religious duties in the choir. At Ankerwyke one of the 
nuns deposed that 

1 V.C.H. Hants. 11, 151. 

2 Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 711^. The Bishop forbade them to keep more 
than the necessary servants and made the same injunction at Legbourne. 
Line. Visit. 11, p. 187. 

» Archaeologia, xLVii, pp. 57-8. Compare his mjunction to Studiey, 
ib. pp. 54-5. In 1306 every useless servant who was a burden to the im- 
poverished house of Arden was to be removed within a week. V.C.H. Yorks. 
Ill, p. 113. In 1326 the custos of Minchin Barrow was told to remove the 
onero'sa familia. Reg. John of Drokensford (Somerset Rec. Soc), p. 242. 

« P.R.O. Suppression Papers, 833/39. 


they had not serving folk in the brewhouse, bakehouse or kitchen 
from the last festival of the Nativity of St John the Baptist last year 
to the Michaelmas next following, in so much that this deponent, 
with the aid of other her sisters, prepared the beer and victuals and 
served the nuns with them in her own person. 

At Gracedieu there was no servant for the infirmary and the 
subcellaress had to sleep there and look after the sick, so that 
she could not come to matins. At Markyate and Harrold the 
nuns had no washerwoman; at the former house it was said 
"that the nuns have no woman to wash their clothes and to 
prepare their food, wherefore they are either obliged to be 
absent from divine service or else to think the whole time about 
getting these things ready"; at the latter a nun said "that they 
have no common washerwoman to wash the clothes of the nuns, 
save four times a year, and at other times the nuns are obliged 
to go to the bank of the public stream to wash their clothes"^. 
It was probably on account of the poverty of Sinningthwaite 
that Archbishop Lee ordered "the susters and the nonys there 
[that] they kepe no seculer women to serve them or doe any 
busynes for them, but yf sekenes or oder necessitie doe require '"'■. 
As to the relations between the servants and their mistresses 
both visitation reports and account rolls sometimes give meagre 
scraps of information, which only whet the appetite for more. 
The payment of the servants was partly in money, partly in 
board or in allowances of food, partly in livery; stock-inventories 
constantly make mention of allowances of wheat, peas, oats or 
oatmeal and maslin (a mixture of wheat and rye) paid to this 
or that servant, and account rolls as constantly mention a 
livery, a pair of hose, a pair of shoes, or the money equivalent 
of these things, as forming part of the wage. The more important 
agricultural servants had also sometimes the right to graze a 

1 Line. Visit, ii, pp. 4, 121, 131 ; Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 6. At Ankerwyke 
Alnwick enjoined "that ye hafe an honeste woman seruaund in your 
kychyne, brewhowse and bakehowse, deyhowse and selere wythe an honeste 
damyselle wythe hire to saruf yowe and your sustres in thise saide offices, 
so that your saide sustres for occupacyone in any of the saide offices be ne 
letted fro diuine seruice." Compare the complaint of the nuns of Sheppey 
that they had no "covent servante" to wash their clothes and tend them 
when they were ill, unless they hired a woman from the village out of their 
own pockets. E.H.R. vi, pp. 33-4. The provision of a laundress was ordered 
at Nunappleton in 1534. Yorks. Arch. Journ. xvi, p. 444. 

^ Yorks. Arch. Journ. xvi, p. 443. 


cow, or a certain number of sheep on the convent's pastures. 
Some servants, however, received wages without board, others 
wages without livery. Account rolls seem to bear witness to 
pleasant relations; there is constant mention of small tips or 
presents to the servants and of dinners made to them on great 
occasions. This was Merry England, when the ploughman's 
feasts enlivened his hard work and comfortless existence; he 
must have his Shrovetide pancakes, his sheep-shearing feast, 
his "sickle goose" or harvest-home, and his Christmas dinner; 
and the household servants must as often as may be have a 
share in the convent pittance. The very general custom of 
allowing the female servants to sleep in the dorter (against 
which bishops were continually having to make injunctions) must 
have made for free and easy and close relations between the 
nuns and the secular women who served them; and sometimes 
one of these would save up and buy herself a corrody in the house 
to end her days^. Occasionally these close relations led to 
difficulties; a trusted maid would gain undue influence over the 
prioress and the nuns would be jealous of her. Thus at Heynings 
in 1440 it was complained that the prioress "encourages her 
secular serving women, whom she beheves more than her sisters 
in their words, to scold the same her sisters "^ Sometimes also 
a servant would act as a go-between between the nuns and the 
outside world, smuggUng in and out tokens and messages and 
sundry billets doux^. 

On the other hand there were sometimes difficulties of a 
different nature. The servants got out of hand; they brought 
discredit on the nuns by the indiscretions of their hves; they 
gossiped about their mistresses in the neighbourhood, or were 
quarrelsome and pert to their faces. At Gracedieu in 1440-41 
a nun complained "that a Frenchwoman of very unseemly 
conversation is their maltstress, also that the secular serving 
folk hold the nuns in despite; she prays that they may be 
restrained; and chiefly are they rebelhous in their words against 

1 " Also she says that secular servingwomen do lie among the sisters in 
the dorter, and especially one who did buy a corrody there " (Heynings, 1440). 
Line. Visit, n, p. 133. The Abbess of Mailing in 1324 was forbidden to give 
a corrody to her maid. Wharton, Anglia Sacra, i, p. 364. 

" Line. Visit. 11, p. 133. 

^ See below, pp. 395, 396. 


the kitchener"!; evidently the author of the Ancren Riwle spal 
not utterly from his imagination when he bade his ladies "I 
glad in your heart if ye suffer insolence from Slurry, the cook 
boy, who washeth dishes in the kitchen "2. At Markyate also tt 
servants had to be warned "that honestly and not sturdyly r 
rebukyngly thai hafe thaym in thaire langage to the sustres" 
and at Studley a maidservant had boxed the ears of a novic 
of tender age*. At Sheppey in 1511 it was said that "the me 
servants of the prioress do not behave properly to the priores: 
but speak of the convent contemptuously and dishonestly, thi 
ruining the convent "5. 

The pecuUar difficulties suffered in this respect by an in 
portant house, which maintained a large body of servants, ai 
best illustrated, however, in the case of Romsey Abbey. At th 
house in 1302 Bishop John of Pontoise ordained 

that a useless, superfluous, quarrelsome and incontinent servant an 
one using insolent language to the ladies shall be removed within 
month,... and especially John Chark, who has often spoken ill an 
contumaciously in speaking to and answering the ladies, unless 1 
correct himself so that no more complaints be made to the bishop' 

John Chark possibly learned to bridle his tongue, but the toi 
among the Romsey servants was not good, for in 1311 Bishc 
Henry Woodlock ordered that "no women servants shall r 
main unless of good conversation and honest; pregnant, i] 
continent, quarrelsome women and those answering the nui 
contumaciously, all superfluous and useless servants, [are] to 1 
removed within a month"'. In 1387 the difficulties were ^ 
another order; writes William of Wykeham: 

the secular women servants of the nuns are wont too often to con 
into the frater, at times when the nuns are eating there, and in 

! Line. Visit. 11, p. 121. Alnwick notes "Amoueatur quedam francige: 
manens in prioratu propter vite inhonestatem, nam omnes admittit vi 
formiter ad concubitus sues " ; and see his general injunction, ib. pp. 122, 12 

2 Ancren Riwle, introd. Gasquet (King's Classics), p 287. 

^ Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 7. * Ib. f. 26 d. 

' E.H.R. VI, p. 33. ° Liveing, op. cit. p. loi. 

' Ib. p. 104. Compare Peckham's injunctions to Wherwell in 1284 " 
si quis inveniatur, serviens masculus aut femina, qui amaris responsionib 
consueverit monialem aliquam vel aliquas molestare, nisi se monitio 
praemissa sufi&cienter corrigat in futurum, illico expellatur." Reg. Ept 
J. Peckham, 11, p. 654; also his injunctions to Barking and Holy Sepulch 
Canterbury, ib. I, p. 85; n, p. 707. Also Thomas of Cantilupe's injunctic 
to Lingbrook, c. 1277. Reg. Thome de Cantilupo, p. 202. 


the cloister while the nuns are engaged there in chapter meetings, 
contemplation, reading or praying, and there do make a noise and 
behave otherwise ill, in a way which beseems not the honesty of 
religion. And these secular women often keep up their chattering, 
carolUng (cantalenas) and other light behaviour, until the middle of 
the night, and disturb the aforesaid nuns, so that they cannot pro- 
perly perform the regular services. Wherefore we... command you 
that you henceforth permit not the aforesaid things, nor any other 
things which befit not the observances of your rule, to be done by the 
said servants or by others, and that you permit not these servants 
to serve you henceforth in the frater, and a servant or any other 
secular person who does the contrary shall be expelled from the 
monastery. Moreover we forbid on pain of the greater excommunica- 
tion that any servants defamed for any offence be henceforth admitted 
to dwell among you, or having been admitted, be retained in your 
service, for from such grave scandals may arise concerning you and 
your house'. 

We have spoken hitherto about the regular hired servants 
of the house; but it must not be forgotten that nuns normally 
had a larger community dependent in part upon them. From 
time to time they were vi'ont to hire such additional labour as 
they required, whether servants in husbandry taken on for the 
haymaking and harvest season, artificers hired to put up or 
repair buildings, workers in various branches of the cloth industry 
to make the hveries of the servants, itinerant candle-makers to 
prepare the vdnter dips, or a variety of casual workers hired 
at one time or another for specific purposes. The nuns of St 
Radegund's, Cambridge, entered in their accounts a large 
number of payments besides those to their regular servants. In 
moments of stress they were wont to fall back upon a paragon 
named Katherine Rolf. We first meet her in 1449-50 weeding 
the garden for four days, for the modest sum of ^\d. ; but soon 
afterwards behold her on the roof, aiding the thatchers to thatch 
two tenements, at j.\d. a day for twelve days. In the next year 
she is more active still; first of all she is found helping the 
candle-makers to make up 14 lbs. of tallow candles for the 
guest-house. Then she combs and cleans a pound of wool for 
spinning. Then she appears in the granary helping the maltster 
to thresh and winnow grain. In the midst of these activities she 
turns an honest penny by selling fat chickens to the convent. 
The nuns also disburse small sums of money to the man who 
» New Coll. MS. f. S^d. 


cleanses the convent privies, to the slawterman for kilUng beas 
for the kitchen, to Richard Gardyner for beating stockfish, 
Thomas Osborne for making malt, to Thomas the Smith f 
providing a variety of iron implements and cart-clowtes, i 
shoeing the horses and for mending the ploughshares, and f 
"blooding the horses on St Stephen's day" (Dec. 26), to Thom 
Boltesham, cowper, for mending wooden utensils, to Thom 
Speed for helping in the kitchen on fair-day and to John Spei 
for working in the garden. Besides these they hire various da 
labourers to work in the fields during the sowing season, ha 
making and harvest, or to lop trees round the convent and he 
up firewood, or to prune and tie up the vines (for there we 
English vineyards in those days). Then there is a long list 
carpenters, builders, thatchers, and plumbers engaged in makii 
and repairing the buildings of the convent and its tenant 
Finally there are the various cloth workers, spinners, weave 
fuller, shearman, dyer and tailor hired to make the servant 
clothes, concerning whom something has already been said^. 
Thus many persons came to depend upon a nunnery for pa 
of their livelihood, who were not the permanent servants of tl 
house, and this goes further than any imagined reverence for tl 
lives and calling of their inmates to explain the anxiety show 
in some places for the preservation of nunneries when the day 1 
dissolution came. The convents were not only inns and boardinj 
houses for ladies of the upper class and occasionally schools f( 
their daughters ; they were the great employers and consumers 1 
their districts, and though their places must sooner or later I 
taken by other employers and consumers, yet at the moment mar 
a husbandman and artificer must have seen his livelihood abo\ 
to slip away from him. The nuns of Sheppey, in their distai 
and lonely flats, clearly employed a whole village-. They coul 

^ Gray. op. cit. passim. 

^ " Nmnes of the Servants now in Wages by the yere. Mr Oglestone, takii 
wages by the yere. Mr White, taking 26 s 8 d by the yere and lyvere. Jol 
Coks, butler, lyvere, xxvi s viij d, whereof to pay i quarter and lyvei 
Alyn Sowthe bayly, taking by yere for closure and hys servant 6 1 13 s 4 
and two lyveryes. Jhon Mustarde 20 s a kowes pasture and a lyvei 
William Rowet, carpentar, 40 s and lyvere. Richard Gyllys 26 s 8 d ai 
lyvere. The carter 33 s 4 d and no lyvere. Thomas Thressher by ye 
33 s 4 d and no lyvere. Robert Dawton by yere 33 s 4 d and no lyvere. T] 
kowherd for kepyng of the kene and hoggys by yere 30 s and no lyvei 
Jhon Hartnar by yere 28 s and no lyvere. Robard Welshe, brewer, by ye 


not count on hiring carpenter and thatcher for piece-work when 
they wanted them in that thinly populated spot, so they must 
hire them all the year round. Twenty-six hinds and seven 
women they had in all, working in their domestic offices or on 
the wide demesne, most of which they farmed themselves, for 
food was far to buy if they did not grow it. Three shepherds 
kept their large flock, a cowherd drove their kine and hogs, a 
horse-keeper looked to their 17 horses. All the other men and 
women were busy with the beasts and the crops in the field, or 
with work in the brew house, the "bultyng howse," the bake- 
house and the dairy. So also at the abbey of Polesworth, where 
fifteen nuns employed in all thirty-eight persons, women servants, 
yeomen about the household and hinds. " In the towne of 
PoUesworth," said the commissioners, who were gentlemen of 
the district and not minded to lose the house : 

ar44tenementes and never a plough but one, the resydue be artifycers, 

laborers and vitellers, and lyve in effect by the said house And 

the towne and nonnery standith in a harde soile and barren ground, 
and to our estymacions, yf the nonnery be suppressed the towne 
will shortely after faUe to ruyne and dekaye, and the people therin, 
to the nombre of six or seven score persones, are nott unlike to wander 
and to seke their lyvyng as our Lorde Gode best knowith^. 

So also at St Mary's, Winchester, whose household we have 

described : 

the seid Monastery... standith nigh the Middell of the Citye, of a 

great and large Compasse, envyroned with many poore housholdes 

20 s and no lyvere. A thatcher 33 s 4 d, a hose cloth and no lyvere. William 
NycoUs 20 s and no lyvere. Jhon Andrew 22 s 4 d and no lyverye. Jhon 
Putsawe 13 s 4 d and a shyrt redy made. George Myllar 21 s 8 d and no 
lyverye. Robert Rychard, horse keper, 20 s and no liverye. Jhon Harryes, 
Frencheman, 13 s 4 d, a shyxt and no lyverye. Jhon Gyles the shepherd, 
14 s, a payre of hoses, a payre of shoys and no lyverye. Richard Gladwyn 
for to make malte, 26 s 8 d by yere, he hath ben here 8 wekes, and no 
lyverye. Dorothe Sowthe, the baylyflfe wyfe, owing for a yere's wages at 
40 s by yere and no liverye. Ales Barkar 13 s 4 d and lyvere. Also Sykkers 
13s 4d and lyverye. Glad%vyn's wyfe 13s 4d and lyverye. EUyn at my ladye.s 
lyndyng. Emme Cawket 12 s and lyvere. Rose Salmon 12 s, she hath been 
here a month. Marget Lambard 13 s 4 d and lyvere. Sir Jhon Lorymer, 
curat of the Parysche churche, 3 1 16 s 8 d and no lyvere. Sir Jhon Ingram, 
chaplen, 3 1 3 s 3 d and no lyvere. Jhon Gayton shepard 53 s 4 d and no 
lyvere. Jhon Pelland 20 s and no lyverye. Jhon Marchant 13 s 4 d and 
pasture for 40 shepe and no lyverye. Jhon Helman 16 s and 10 shepes 
pasture and no lyverye. Jhon Cannyng shepard by yere 20 sand no lyverye." 
Walcott, E. C. M. op. cit. pp. 33-4. 

1 Letters relating to the Suppression of the Monasteries, ed. Thomas Wright 
(Camden Soc. 1843), p. 140. 


which haue thejT oonly lyuynge of the seid Monastery, And hav 
no demaynes whereby they may make any prouysion, butt lyue oonl 
by theyr landes, making theyr prouysion in the markettes'. 

The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and a livelihoo( 
fulfils itself in many ways; yet many labouring folk as well a 
gentlemen must have felt like the commissioners at Poleswort] 
and St Mary's, Winchester, when the busy monastic housewive 
were dispersed and the grain and cattle sold out of barn and byre 
There is no-one so conservative as your bread-winner, and fo 
the best of reasons. 

' Essays on Chancer, and Series (Chaucer Soc), p. 189. 



Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen, 
six; result, happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual ex- 
penditure twenty pounds, ought and six; result, misery. 

Mr Micawber. 

In the history of the medieval nunneries of England there is 
nothing more striking than the constant financial straits to which 
they were reduced. Professor Savine's analysis of the Valor 
Ecclesiasticus has shown that in 1535 the nunneries were on an 
average only half as rich as the men's houses, while the average 
number of religious persons in them was larger^; and yet it is 
clear from the evidence of visitation documents that even the 
men's houses were continually in debt. It is therefore not to be 
wondered at that there was hardly a nunnery in England, which 
did not at one time or another complain of poverty. These 
financial difficulties had already begun before the end of the 
thirteenth century and they grew steadily worse until the moment 
of the Dissolution. The worst sufferers of all were the nunneries 
of Yorkshire and the North, a prey to the inroads of the Scots, 
who time after time piUaged their lands and sometimes dispersed 
their inmates; Yorkshire was fuU of nunneries and almost aU 
of them were miserably poor. But in other parts of the country, 
without any such special cause, the position was httle better. 
When Bishop Alnwick visited the diocese of Lincoln in the first 
half of the fifteenth century, fourteen out of the twenty-five 
houses which he examined were in financial difficulties. More- 
over not only is this true of small houses, inadequately endowed 
from their foundation and less hkely to weather bad times, but 
the largest and richest houses frequently complained of insuffi- 
cient means. It is easy to understand the distress of the poor 
nuns of Roth well; their founder Richard, Earl of Gloucester, 

1 Savine, English Monasteries on the Eve of the Dissolution (Oxford Hist. 
Studies, ed. Vinogradoff, I, pp. 221-2). See also above, Ch. i, pp. 2-3. 


had died before properly endowing the house, and the prioress 
and convent could expend for their food and clothing only four 
marks and the produce of four fields of land, in one of which 
the house was situated^. But it is less easy to account for the 
constant straits of the great Abbey of Shaftesbury, which had 
such vast endowments that a popular saying had arisen : " If the 
Abbot of Glastonbury could marry the Abbess of Shaftesbury, 
their heir would hold more land than the King of England "^ 
It is comprehensible that the small houses of Lincolnshire and 
the dangerously situated houses of Yorkshire should be in diffi- 
culties; but their complaints are not more piteous than those 
of Romsey, Godstow and Barking, richly endowed nunneries, to 
which the greatest ladies of the land did not disdain to retire. 

The poverty of the nunneries was manifested in many ways. 
One of these was the extreme prevalence of debt. On the occa- 
sion of Bishop Alnwick's visitations, to which reference has been 
made above, no less than eleven houses were found to be in 
debt^. At Ankerwyke the debts amounted to £40, at Langley 
to £^0, at Stixwould to 80 marks, at Harrold to 20 marks, at 
Roth well to 6 marks. Markyate was " indebted to divers creditors 
for a great sum." Heynings was in debt owing to costly repairs 
and to several bad harvests, and about the same time a petition 
from the nuns stated that they had "mortgaged for no short 
time their possessions and rents and thus remain irrecoverably 
pledged, have incurred various very heavy debts and are much 
depressed and brought to great and manifest poverty"*. In some 
cases the prioresses claimed to have reduced an initial debt ; the 
Prioress of St Michael's, Stamford, said that on her installation 
twelve years previously the debts stood at £20 and that they 
were now only 20 marks; the Prioress of Gracedieu said that 

• Cal. of Papal Letters, iv, p. 436. In 1442 its numbers (which should 
have been fourteen) had sunk to seven and it was six marks in debt {Aln- 
wick's Visit. MS. f. 38). The clear annual value of the house in the Valor 
Ecclesiasticus was only £5. 19s. 8Jrf. Compare the case of Heynings, whose 
founder, Sir John Darcy, had also died without completing its endowment. 
Cal. of Papal Letters, v, p. 347. 

2 Fuller, Church History, in, p. 332. Its net income at the Dissolution 
was ;£i329, IS. id. Compare The Italian Relation of England (Camden Soc), 
pp. 40-1. 

' Line. Visit. II, pp. i, 49, 117, 119, 130, 133, 175, 184; Alnwick's Visit. 
MS. ff. 6d, 38, 83. 

^ Cal. of Papal Letters, v, p. 347. 


she had reduced debts from £48 to £38 ; the Prioress of Legbourne 
said that the debts were now only £14 instead of £631. But from 
the miserable poverty of some of these houses (for instance 
Gokewell, where the income in rents was said to be £10 yearly 
and Langley, where it was £20, less than half the amount of 
the debts) it may be inferred that the struggle to repay creditors 
out of an already insufficient income was a hopeless one; and 
the effort to do so out of capital was often more disastrous still. 
Nothing is more striking than the lists of debts which figure in 
the account rolls of medieval nunneries. In thirteen out of 
seventeen account rolls belonging to St Michael's Stamford^ and 
ranging between 1304 and 1410, the nuns end the year with a 
deficit; and in fourteen cases there is a schedule of debts added 
to the account. Sometimes the amount owed is small, but occa- 
sionally it is very large. In the first roll which has survived 
(1304-5) the deficit on the account is some £5 odd; the debts 
are entered as £23. is. 11^. on the present year (which were 
apparently afterwards paid, because the items were marked 
"vacat pour ceo ke le deners sount paye") and fifteen items 
amounting to £52. 3s. 8i. and described as "nos auncienes 
dettes estre cest aan " ; in fact the debts amount to considerably 
more than the income entered in the rolF. Similarly in 1346-47 
the debts amount to £51 odd and in 1376-77 to £53 odd, and in 
other years to smaller sums. In some cases a list of debts due 
to the convent is also entered in the account, but in only four 
of these does the money owed to the house exceed the amount 
owing by it; and "argent aprompte" or "money borrowed" is 
a regular item in the credit account. Similarly the treasuresses' 
accounts of Gracedieu end with long schedules of debts due by 
the house*. Nor was it only the small houses which got into 

' The Prioress of Ankerwyke also claimed to have reduced the debt from 
300 marks to £^0, but one of the nuns said that it had been only £30 on her 
installation and that it had not been paid by the Prioress but from other 
sources. Line. Visit, u, pp. i, 3. 

2 P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1260 passim. 

^ P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1260/1. It should, however, be noted that some 
of the items which go to make up the total of the debts are sums of money 
owing to members of the convent (e.g. the Prioress and Subprioress) by the 
treasuresses, though the sums owing to outsiders are larger. 

* P.R.O.Mins. Accts. 1257 jioB.. in a.nAi-\d,igd. Similarly the Prioress's 
account of Delapr6 for 4 Henry VIII contains a long list of debts. St Paul's 
Ecclesiological Soc. vil (1912), p. 52. An analysis of Archbishop Eudes 


debt. Tarrant Keynes was quite well off, but as early as 1292 
the nuns asked the royal leave to sell forty oaks to pay their 
debtsi. Godstow was rich, but in 1316 the King had to take it 
under his protection and appoint keepers to discharge its debts, 
"on account of its poverty and miserable state," and in 1335 
the profits during vacancy were remitted to the convent by the 
King "because of its poverty and misfortunes "2. St Mary's, 
Winchester, was a famous house, but it also was in debt early 
in the fourteenth century^. It should be noticed that the last 
cases (and that of St Michael's Stamford, 1304-5) are anterior 
to the Black Death, to whose account it has been customary 
to lay all the financial misfortunes of the religious houses. It is 
undeniable that the Black Death completed the ruin of many of 
the smaller houses, and that matters grew steadily worse during 
the last half of the fourteenth and throughout the fifteenth 
century; but there is ample evidence that the finances of many 
religious houses, both of men and of women, had been in an 
unsatisfactory condition at an earlier date ; and even the golden 
thirteenth century can show cases of heavy debt^. 

In the smaller houses the constant struggle with poverty 
must have entailed no little degree of discomfort and discourage- 
ment. Sometimes the nuns seem actually to have lacked food 
and clothes, and it seems clear that in many cases the revenues 
of these convents were insufficient for their support and that 
they were dependent upon the charity of friends. A typical 
case is that of Legbourne, where one of the nuns informed 
Bishop Alnwick (1440) that since the revenues of the house 
did not exceed £4.0 and since there were thirteen nuns and one 
novice, it was impossible for so many of them to have sufficient 
food and clothing from such inadequate rents, unless they re- 

Rigaud's visitations of nunneries in the Diocese of Rouen gives even more 
startling information on this point ; all but four of the fourteen houses show 
a list of debts growing heavier year by year and this was in the thirteenth 
century (1249-69). See Reg. Visit. Archiep. Rothomag. ed. Bonnin passim. 

1 V.C.H. Dorset, 11, p. 88. 2 V.C.H. Oxon. 11, p. 73. 

^ Cal. oj Papal Petit, i, pp. 56, 122, 230. 

* For other cases of debt, in different centuries, see V.C.H. Yorks. m, 
pp. 124, 161, 163-4, i88, 239, 240; Reg. W alter Giffard (Surtees Soc), p. 148; 
V.C.H. Oxon. n, pp. 78, 104; V.C.H. Essex, p. 122; V.C.H. Derby, ii, p. 43; 
V.C.H. Norfolk, n, p. 351; V.C.H. Hants. 11, p. 150; V.C.H. Bucks. 1, p. 355; 
Visit, of Diocese of Norwich (Camden Soc), pp. 108, 109; Test. Ebor. I, 
pp. 284-5; Cal. of Papal Letters, vi, p. 25; Sussex Archaeol. Coll. ix, p. 7. 


ceived assistance from secular friends^. Fosse in 1341 was said 
to be so slenderly endowed that the nuns had not enough to 
live on without external aid^; and in 1440 Alnwick noted "all 
the nuns complain ever of the poverty of the house and they 
receive nothing from it save only food and drink " ^. Of Buckland 
it was stated that "its possessions cannot sufiice for the sus- 
tenance of the said sisters with their household, for the emenda- 
tion of their building, for their clothes and for their other 
necessities without the help of friends and the offering of alms " *. 
Cokehill in 1336 was excused a tax because it was so inadequately 
endowed that the nuns had not enough to Uve upon without 
outside aid^ Davington in 1344 was in the same position; 
although the nuns were reduced to half their former number, 
they could not live upon their revenues without the charity 
of friends*. Alnwick's visitations, indeed, show quite clearly that 
in poor houses the nuns were often expected to provide either 
clothes or (on certain days) food for themselves, out of the gift 
of their friends^. At Sinningthwaite, in the diocese of York, the 
position appears even more clearly; in 13 19 it was declared that 
the nuns who had no elders, relatives or friends, lacked the 
necessary clothes and were therefore afflicted with cold, where- 
upon the Archbishop ordered them to have clothes provided 
out of the means of the house'. The clause of the Council of 
Oxford which permitted poor houses to receive a sum sufficient 
for the vesture of a new member was evidently stretched to 
include the perpetual provision of clothing by external friends, 
and this is sometimes indicated in the wording of legacies. Thus 
Roger de Noreton, citizen and mercer of York, left the following 
bequest in 1390: 

I bequeath to Isabel, my daughter, a nua of St Clement's, York, to 
buy her black flannels {pro flannelis suis nigris emendis), according 
to the arrangement of my wife Agnes and of my other executors, at 
fitting times, according to her needs, four marks of silver'. 

1 Line. Visit. 11, p. 186. 

2 V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 157. » Line. Visit, n, p. 92. 
* The Knights Hospitallers in England (Camden Soc), p. 20. 

' V.C.H. Wares. 11, pp. 157-8. ' Dugdale, Mon. iv. p. 285. 

' See below, p. 340. * V.C.H. Yorks. ni, p. 177. 

' Test. Ebor. i, p. 133. The account book of Gracedieu (1414-8) con- 
tains entries of money paid by WilUam Roby "for the clothes of his relation 
Dame Agnes Roby" and at another time by Margaret Roby for the same 
purpose (65. 8d.) Gasquet, English Monastic Life, p. 170. 


Sir Thomas Cumberworth, dying in 1451, specifically directed 
that "ye blak Curteyne of lawne be cut in vailes and gyfyn to 
pore nones "1. 

The nuns were not always able to obtain adequate help 
from external friends in the matter of food and clothes; and 
evidence given at episcopal visitations shows that they some- 
times went cold and hungry. Complaints are common that the 
allowance paid to the nuns (in defiance of canon law) for the 
provision of food and of garments had been reduced or with- 
drawn; and so also are complaints that the quality of beer 
provided by the convent was poor, though here the propensity 
of all communities to grumble at their food has to be taken into 
account^- But more specific information is often given; and 
though it is clear that financial mismanagement was often as 
much to blame as poverty, the sufferings of the nuns were not 
for that reason any less real. The Yorkshire nunnery of Swine 
is a case in point. It was never rich, but at Archbishop Giffard's 
visitation in 1268 the nuns complained that the maladministra- 
tion of their fellow canons^ had made their position intolerable. 
Although the means of the house, if discreetly managed, sufficed 
to maintain them, they nevertheless had nothing but bread and 
cheese and ale for meals and were even served with water instead 
of ale twice a week, while the canons and their friends were 
provided for "abundantly and sumptuously enough"; the nuns 
were moreover insufficiently provided with shoes and clothes; 
they had only one pair of shoes each year* and barely a tunic in 
every three and a cloak in every six years, unless they managed 
to beg more from relatives and secular friends^. Fifty years later 
there was still scarcity at Swine, for the Prioress was ordered 
to see that the house was reasonably served with bread, ale and 
other necessities^ At Ankerwyke (1441) the frivolous and in- 
competent Prioress, Clemence Mcdforde, reduced her nuns to 

• Lincoln Diocese Documents (E.E.T.S.), p. 57. 

^ It is amusing to notice the indignation of the nuns when their beer was 
not strong enough. See e.g. Alnwick's Visit. MS. ff. yid, -ji; Visit, of Dice, 
of Norwich (Camden Soc), p. 209; Yorks. Archaeol. Journal, xvi, p. 443. 

' Dugdale, Mon. v, pp. 493-4. 

' When little Elizabeth Sewardby was boarding in Nunmonkton she 
had ten pairs in eighteen months ! Test. Ebor. in, p. 168. 

' Reg. of Walter Giffard (Surtees Soc), pp. 147-8. 

« V.C.H. Yorks. m,-p. 181. 


similar discomfort. Margery Kirkby, whose tongue nothing could 
stop, announced that "she furnishes not nor for three years' 
space has furnished fitting habits to the nuns, insomuch that 
the nuns go about in patched clothes. The threadbareness of 
the nuns" added the bishop's clerk "was apparent to my lord. 
(Patebai domino nuditas monialium.)" Three of the younger 
nuns also made complaints; Thomasine Talbot had no bed- 
clothes "insomuch that she hes in the straw," Agnes Dychere 
"asks that sufficient provision be made to her in clothing 
for her bed and body, that she may be covered from the cold, 
and also in eatables, that she may have strength to undergo 
the burden of religious observance and divine service, for these 
hitherto had not been supphed to her"; and Margaret Smith 
also complained of insufficient bedclothes. Poor httle sister 
Thomasine also remarked sadly that she had no kirtle provided 
for her use^. 

The history of Romsey shows that even the rich houses 
suffered from similar inconveniences. In 1284 Peckham speaks 
of a scarcity of food in the house and forbids the Abbess to fare 
sumptuously in her chamber, while the convent went short ^; in 
131 1 it was ordered that the bread should be brought back to 
the weight, quantity and quality hitherto used^; and in 1387 
William of Wykeham rather severely commanded the Abbess 
and officiaries to provide for the nuns bread, beer and other fit 
and proper victuals, according to ancient custom and to the 
means of the house*- Campsey was another flourishing house, 
but in 1532 a chorus of complaint greeted the ears of the visitor, 

' Line. Visit. 11, pp. 4, 5. This lack of bedclothes for the younger nuns 
was partly due to the fact that the Prioress did not want them to sleep in 
the dorter, for Thomasine adds "and when my lord had commanded this 
deponent to lie in the dorter and this deponent asked bedclothes of the 
Prioress, she said chidingly to her 'Let him who gave you leave to lie in 
the dorter supply you with raiment.' " Mr Hamilton Thompson thinks that 
"probably sister Thomasine had previously been lodged separately with 
the other younger nuns and the Prioress and elders objected to the crowding 
of the dorter." But poverty was the main cause, for at a later visitation 
the Prioress stated that she was unable to supply the sisters with sufhcient 
raiment for their habits "because of the poverty and insufficiency of the 
resources of the house." lb. p. 7. 

^ The same injunction was sent to Wherwell. Reg. Epist. Johannis Peck- 
ham (Rolls Ser.), 11, pp. 651, 659-60. 

^ Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, p. 103. 

" New Coll. MS. f. 86d. 


and (as in so many cases) the ills were all put down to th( 
mismanagement of the Prioress, Ela Buttry. She was not toe 
luxurious, but too stingy; Katherine Symon said that nobl( 
guests, coming to the priory, complained of the very greai 
parsimony of the Prioress; Margaret Harmer said that the sister; 
were sometimes served with very unwholesome food; Isabe 
Norwich said that the friends of the nuns, coming to the house 
were not properly provided for; Margaret Bacton said tha- 
dinner was late through the fault of the cook and that th( 
meat was burnt to a cinder; Katherine Grome said that th( 
beef and mutton with which the nuns were served were some- 
times bad and unwholesome and that within the past month 
a sick ox, which would otherwise have died, had been killed foi 
food, and that the Prioress was very sparing both in her owr 
meals and in those with which she provided the nuns ; and f oui 
other sisters gave evidence to the same effect^. One has the 
impression that the nuns were elderly and fussy, but there was 
evidently a basis for their unanimous complaint, and it is easy 
to imagine that food may sometimes have been very bad ir 
convents which (unUke Campsey) were burdened with rea 

Another sign of the financial distress of the nunneries was 
the ruinous condition of their buildings. The remark written bj 
a shivering monk in a set of nonsense verses may well stanc 
as the plaint of half the nunneries of England: 

Haec abbathia ruit, hoc notum sit tibi, Christe, 
Intus et extra pluit, terribilis est locus iste. 

("This abbey faUeth in ruins, Christ mark this well! It rainetl 
within and without; how fearful is this place ! ")'. Time after time 

1 Visit, of the Diocese of Norwich (Camden Soc), pp. 290-2. Cf. th( 
complaint of the nuns of Studley in 1530: " They be oftentymes served witl 
befie and no moton upon Thursday at nyght and Sondays at nyght and bi 
served oftentymes w^ith new ale and not hulsome." V.C.H. Oxon. 11, p. 78 

^ Other houses in the diocese of Norwich which complained of bad foo( 
were Flixton (1520) and Carrow (1492, 1514, 1526). Carrow was one of th 
most famous nunneries in England, but in 1492 one of the Bishop's compert, 
ran : " That the present sisters are restricted to eight loaves, and this is ver 
little for ten sisters, for the whole day. Item there is often a lack of bread i: 
the house, contrary to the good repute of the place." See Visit, of the Dioces 
of Norwich, pp. 16-17, i45> 185-6, 209. 

' Reliquiae Antiquae, i, p. 291. Translated in Coulton, A Mediaevc 
Garner, p. 597. 


Brass of Ela Buttry, the stingy Prioress of Campsey (f 1546), in St Stephen's 
Church, Norwich. Stingy even in death, she has appropriated to her own use 
the brass of a 14th century laywoman. 


visitations revealed houses badly in need of repair and roofs 
letting in rain or even tumbling about the ears of the nuns; 
time after time indulgences were granted to Christians who would 
help the poor nuns to rebuild church or frater or infirmary. The 
thatched roofs especially were continually needing repairs. It 
will be remembered how the Abbess Euphemia of Wherwell 
rebuilt the bell tower above the dorter, 

which fell down through decay one night, about the hour of mattins, 
when by an obvious miracle from heaven, thougli the nuns were in 
the dorter, some in bed and some in prayer before their beds, all 
escaped not only death but any bodily injury^. 

At Orabhouse in the time of Joan Wiggenhall 

the dortour that than was, as fer forthe as we knowe, the furste that 
was set up on the place, was at so grete mischeef and, at the gate- 
downe, the Prioresse dredyinge perisschyng of her sistres whiche lay 
thereinne took it doune for drede of more hermys, 

and next year "sche began the grounde of the same dortoure 
that now stondith and wrought thereupon fuUi vij yere 
betymes as God wolde sende hir good^." The Prioress of 
Swine was ordered in 1318 to have the dorter covered 
without delay, so that the nuns might quietly and in silence 
enter it, without annoyance from storms, and to have the 
roofs of the other buildings repaired as soon as might be^. At 
St Radegund's Cambridge, in 1373, the Prioress was charged 
with suffering the frater to remain unroofed, so that in rainy 
weather the sisters were unable to take their meals there, to 
which she replied that the nunnery was so burdened with debts, 
subsidies and contributions, that she had so far been unable to 
carry out repairs, but would do so as quickly as possible*. At 
Littlemore in 1445 the nuns did not sleep in the dorter for fear it 
should fall^ At Romsey in 1502 the wicked Abbess Ehzabeth 
Broke had allowed the roofs of the chancel and dorter to become 
defective, "so that if it happened to rain the nuns were unable 

1 V.C.H. Hants. 11, p. 135. The belfry of St Radegund's, Cambridge, fell 
down and injured the church in 1277. Gray, Hist, of the Priory of St Rade- 
gund, Cambridge, pp. 37-8; cf. p. 79. That of Esholt fell in 1445. V.C.H. 
Yorks. Ill, p. 161. 

' Reg. of Orabhouse Nunnery [Norfolk Archaeology, xi, 1892), pp. 61, 

> V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 181. ' Gray, op. cit. p. 32. 

» Line. Visit. 11, p. 217. 


to remain either in the quire in time of divine service or in the 
beds and the funds that the abbess ought to have expends 
on these matters were being squandered on Master Bryce"; t] 
fabric of the monastery in stone walls was also going to dec£ 
through her neglect, and so were various tenements belongii 
to the house in the town of Romsey^. Over a hundred and tweni 
years before, William of Wykeham had found Romsey hard 
less dilapidated, with its church, infirmary and nuns' roon 
"full of many enormous and notable defects," and the buildin, 
of the monastery itself and of its different manors in need 
repair^. Of the unfortunate houses within the area of Scottii 
inroads, Arden, Thicket, Keldholme, Rosedale, Swine, Wykehai 
Arthington and Moxby were all ruinous at the beginning of tl 
fourteenth century; the monotonous list includes the churc 
frater and chapter house of Arden, the cloister of Rosedal 
the bakehouse and brewhouse of Moxby, the dorter and frater 
Arthington 3. 

In the sixteenth century the distress was, as usual, at i 
worst. At the visitation of the Chichester diocese by Bishc 
Sherburn in 1521 the cloister of Easebourne needed roofing ai 
Rusper was "in magno decasu"; six years later Rusper w 
still "aliqualiter ruinosa"*. At the Norwich visitations of Bishc 
Nykke the church of Blackborough was in ruins, and the roc 
of cloister and frater at Flixton were defective; while at Cra 
house buildings were in need of repair and the roof of the Lac 
chapel was ruinous^; Joan Wiggenhall must have turned in h 
grave. Bishop Longland's visitations of the diocese of Linco 
show a similar state of affairs. In 1531 he commanded t 

' V.C.H. Hants. 11, pp. 129-31 passim. For another complaint tt 
tenements and leasehold houses belonging to a priory were ruinous and li 
to fall down, through the negligence of the prioress and bailiff, see the a 
of Legbourne in 1440. Line. Visit. 11, p. 185. 

^ New Coll. MS. S. Sjd-S8. He ordered the Abbess to repair defei 
at once out of the common goods of the house. Better still, he would sei 
to have assisted them from his own pocket to carry out the injunction, ; 
by his will (1402) he remitted to them a debt of £40, for the repair of th 
church and cloister. Nicolas, Tesiamenta Vetusta, 11, p. 708. 

^ V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, pp. 113, 124, 168, 174, 181, 183, 188, 240; Yedii 
ham and Esholt (ib. pp. 128, 161) and St Mary, Neasham {V.C.H. Durha 
II, p. 107) needed repair in the middle of the fifteenth century. 

' Stissex Arch. Coll. ix, p. 23; v, pp. 256, 258. 

* Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich (Camden Soc), pp. 107-8, i 
261, 311. 


Abbess of Elstow " that suche reparacons as be necessarye in and 
upon the buildinges within the said monasterye, and other 
houses, tenements and fearmes thereto belonging, be suffycyently 
doon and made within the space of oon yere," and the Prioress 
of Nuncoton, "that ye cause your firmary, your chirche and all 
other your houses that be in ruyne and dekaye within your 
monastery to be suffycyently repayred within this yere if itt 
possible may"; and reminded the nuns of Studley that they 
"muste bestowe lardge money upon suche reparacons as are to 
be doon upon your churche, quere, dortor and other places 
whiche ar in grete decaye"i. At Goring, also, the nuns all com- 
plained that the buildings were utterly out of repair, especially 
the choir, cloister and dorter^. 

The frequency of fires in the middle ages was probably 
often to blame for the ruin of buildings. There were then no 
contrivances for extinguishing flames, and the thatched and 
wooden houses must have burned like stubble. Thus it was that 
"thorow the neghgens of woman^ with fyre brent up a good 
malt-house with a soler and alle her malt there " at Orabhouse, 

* Archaeologia, XLVii, pp. 52, 54, 59. 

^ V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 104. A few out of many other references to 
ruinous buildings may be given here. Easebourne (141 1). Bishop Rede's 
Reg. p. 137. Polsloe (1319). Reg. of Bishop Stapeldon of Exeter, p. 318. Delapr6 
(Northampton) (1303), Wothorpe (1292), Rothwell (fourteenth century), 
Catesby (1301, 1312). V.C.H. Northants. 11, pp. loi, 114, 138, 123. 
Rowney (1431). V.C.H. Herts, iv, pp. 435-6. St Radegund's Cambridge 
Gray, op. cii. pp. 36-8, 79. St Clare without Aldgate (1290). Ely Epis. 
Records, ed. Gibbons, p. 415. St Mary's Winchester (1343-52). Cal. of Pap. 
Pet. I, pp. 56, 122, 230. 

' Perhaps in the same way that a fire broke out at Sempringham in the 
lifetime of St Gilbert. " A nun, bearing a light through the kitchen by night, 
fixed a part of a burnt candle to another she was going to burn, so that both 
were alight at once. But when the part fixed on to the other was almost 
consumed, it fell on the floor, on which much straw was collected, ready for 
a fire. The nun did not heed it, and believing that the fire would go out by 
itself, she went away and shut the door. But the flame, finding food, first 
devoured the straw lying close by, then the whole house with the adjacent 
of&ces and their contents, whence a great loss happened to the church." 
Quoted from MS. Cott. Chop. B. i, f . 77 by R. Graham, St Gilbert of Semp- 
ringham and the Gilbertines, p. 135. It will be remembered that the author of 
the thirteenth century treatise, called " Seneschaucie," is most careful to 
declare that ploughmen, waggoners and cowherds must not carry fire into 
the byres, stables and cowhouse, either for light or to warm themselves, 
"unless the candle be in a lantern and this for great need and then it must 
be carried and watched by another than himself." Walter of Henley's 
Husbandry, ed. E. Lamond (1890), p. 113. 


and Joan Wiggenhall had to repair it at a cost of five pounds^- 
There is a piteous appeal to Edward I from the nuns of Cheshunt, 
who had been impoverished by a fire and sought " help from the 
King of his special grace and for God's sake"; but " Nihil fiat 
hac vice," replied red tape^; an undated petition in the Record 
Office says that the house, church and goods of the nuns had 
twice been burned and their charters destroyed^. In 1299 the 
Abbess of Wilton received permission to fell fifty oaks in the 
forest of Savernake "in order to rebuild therewith certain houses 
in the abbey lately burnt by mischance"*. At Wykeham, in 
Edward Ill's reign, the priory church, cloisters and twenty-four 
other buildings were accidentally burned down and aU the books, 
vestments and chalices of the nuns were destroyed 5. Similarly 
the nuns of St Radegund's, Cambridge, lost their house and all 
their substance by fire at the beginning of the fourteenth century, 
and in 1376 their buildings were again said to have been burned; 
either they had never recovered from their first disaster or a 
second fire had broken out*. The nuns of St Leonard's, Grimsby, 
apparently lost their granaries in 1311, for they sought licence 
to beg on the ground that their houses and corn had been con- 
sumed by fire, and in 1459 they asked for a similar licence, 
because their buildings had been burnt, and their land inundated'. 
The convent of St Bartholomew's, Newcastle, gave misfortune 
by fire as one reason for wishing to appropriate the hospital or 
chapel of St Edmund the King in Gateshead *. 

Sometimes poverty, misfortune and mismanagement reduced 
the nuns to begging alms. About 1253 the convent of St Mary 
of Chester wrote to Queen Eleanor, begging her to confirm the 
election of a prioress "to our miserable convent amidst its 
multiplied desolations; for so greatly are we reduced that we 
are compelled every day to beg abroad our food, slight as it 
is"^. Similarly the starving nuns of Whitehall, Ilchester, were 
reduced to "begging miserably," after the regime of a wicked 

' Reg. of Crabhouse Nunnery U.S. p. 61. 

^ Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 328. See also V.C.H. Herts, iv, p. 426. 

' V.C.H. Herts, loc. cit. 

* Cal. of Close Rolls, 1296-1302, p. 238. 

^ V.C.H. Yorks. ni, p. 183. « Gray, op. cit. p. 79. 

' V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 179. 

' Dugdale, Mon. IV, p. 485. 

° Wood, Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies, 1, p. 35. 


prioress at the beginning of the fourteenth century^. In 1308 
the subprioress and convent of Whiston mentioned, in asking 
for permission to elect Alice de la Flagge, that the smallness 
of their possessions had compelled the nuns formerly to beg, 
"to the scandal of womanhood and the discredit of religion"^. 
In 1351 Bishop Edyndon of Winchester "counted it a merciful 
thing," to come to the assistance of the great Abbeys of Romsey 
and St Mary's Winchester, "when overwhelmed with poverty, 
and when in these days of increasing illdoing and social deteriora- 
tion they were brought to the necessity of secret begging "3. At 
Cheshunt in 1367 the nuns declared that they often had to beg 
in the highways*. At Rothwell in 1392 the extreme poverty of 
the nuns compelled some of them "to incur the opprobrium 
of mendicity and beg alms after the fashion of the mendicant 
friars "^ In all these cases it is evident that objection was taken 
to personal begging by the nuns, and it is clear that such a 
practice, which took the nuns out into the streets and into 
private houses, was likely to be subversive of discipline. The 
custom of begging through a proctor was open to no such 
objection; and it was common for bishops to give to the poorer 
houses Ucences, allowing them to collect alms in this manner. 
Early in the fifteenth century the nuns of Rowney in Hertford- 
shire petitioned the Chancellor for letters patent for a proctor to 
go about the country and collect alms for them, and their request 
was granted^. Many such licences to beg occur in episcopal 
registers; Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln granted them to Little 

1 ifeg. o//o/jKo/£'TOftcKs/o>-(? (Somerset Rec. Soc), p. 227. Text in Hugo, 
Medieval Nunneries of Somerset: Whitehall in Ilchesier, p. 78. But seven 
years before they had been begging, according to the Bishop, by the com- 
pulsion of this expelled prioress, whose case was sub judice. Reg. p. 115 
and Hugo, loc. cit. 

- Reg. Sede Vacante (Wore. Rec. Soc), pp. 112-3. 

' Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, p. 145. 

* V.C.H. Herts, iv, p. 427. ^ V.C.H. Northanis. n, p. 137. 

« V.C.H. Herts, iv, pp. 434-5. The text of their petition is as follows: 
"A tres reverend pier en dieu, mon treshonure seigneur le chaunceller 
dengleterre, suppliant voz pouers oratrices la prioresse et les noneyns de 
Rowney en le countee de...qe come lour esghse et autres mesons sont en 
poynt de cheyer a terre pur defaute de reparacion et ils nount dont lez re- 
parailler, si noun dalmoigne de bones gens, qe plese a vostre treshonure 
seignurie de vostre grace eux granter vn patent pur vn lour procuratour, 
de aler en la paiis a coiller almoigns de bones gentz pur la sustenance et 
releuacioun du dit pouere mesoun et en noun de charite." P.R.O. Ancient 
Petitions, 302/15063. 


Marlow (1300 and 131 1)^ St Leonard's Grimsby (I3II)^ an 
Rothwell (1318)3; and St Michael's Stamford (i359) and S( 
wardsley (1366) received similar licences from his successors 
The distinction between begging by the nuns and begging b 
a proctor is clearly drawn in the licence granted by Bisho 
Dalderby to Rothwell. Addressing the clergy in the Arch: 
diaconates of Northampton and Buckingham he writes : 

Pitying, with paternal affection, the want of the poor nuns of Roth 
well in our diocese, who are oppressed by such scarcity that they ai 
obliged to beg the necessities of life, we command and straitly enjoi 
you, that when there shall come to you suitable and honest secula 
proctors or messengers of the same nuns (not the nuns themselvei 
that they may have no occasion for wandering thereby), to seek an 
receive the alms of the faithful for their necessities, ye shall receiv 
them kindly and expound the cause of the said nuns to the peopl 
in your churches, on Sundays, and feast days during the solemnisatio 
of mass, and promote the same by precept and by example once ever 
year for the next three years, delivering the whole of whatever sha 
be collected to these proctors and messengers'. 

The Bishops sought to relieve necessitous convents by offerin 
particular inducements to the faithful to give alms, when the 
were thus requested. Along with mending roads and bridge; 
ransoming captives, dowering poor maidens, building churche 
and endowing hospitals, the assistance of impecunious nunnerie 
was generally recognised as a work of Christian charity, an 
indulgences were often offered to those who would aid a particula 
house*. The same Bishop Dalderby, for instance, granted ir 
dulgences for the assistance of Oheshunt, Flamstead', Sewardsle} 

1 V.C.H. Bucks. I, p. 358. 

* V.C.H. Lines, ii, p. lyg. Another licence in 1459. 

' V.C.H. Northants. ii, p. 137. * lb. pp. roo, 126. 

' Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, i. 374. (Pro monialibus de Rowell 
It is surprising, however, that Peckham, in his constitution forbidding nur 
to be absent from their convents for longer than three, or at the most sij 
days, adds: "We do not extend this ordinance to those nuns who are force 
to beg their necessities outside, while they are begging." Wilkins, Concilii 
II, p. 59. It is certain that the nuns did beg in their own persons. Whe 
Archbishop Eudes Rigaud visited St-Aubin in 1261 he ordered that tl 
younger nuns should not be sent out to beg (pro questu) ; and in 1263 tw 
of them were absent in France, seeking alms. Reg. Visit. Archiepiscoj 
Rothomagensis, ed. Bonnin, pp. 412, 471. 

° On this subject see an interesting article by C. Wordsworth, " On son 
Pardons or Indulgences preserved in Yorkshire 1412-1527" (Yorks. Arc 
Journ. XVI, pp. 369 ff.). 

' V.C.H. Herts. IV, pp. 426, 432. 


Catesby, Delapre^, Ivinghoe^, Fosse^, St James' outside Hunting- 
don and St Radegund's, Cambridge*. Archbishop Kemp of York 
granted an indulgence of a hundred days valid for two years 
to all who should assist towards the repair of Arden (1440) and 
of Esholt (1445), and Archbishop William Booth (1456) granted 
an indulgence of forty days to penitents contributing to the 
repair of Yedingham^; indeed it is probable that the money for 
the much needed work of roofing a building could be collected 
only by means of such special appeals. The Popes also sometimes 
granted indulgences; Boniface IX did so to penitents who on 
the feasts of dedication visited and gave alms towards the con- 
servation of the churches and priories of Wilberfoss, St Clement's, 
York, and Handale'. The history of St Radegund's, Cambridge, 
will serve to illustrate the method by which the Church thus 
organised the work of poor-rehef in the middle ages ; and it will 
be noticed that this nunnery was an object of care to Bishops 
of other dioceses beside that of Ely'. In 1254 Walter de Suffield, 
Bishop of Norwich, granted a relaxation of penance for twenty- 
five days to persons contributing to the aid of the nuns; in 1268 
Richard de Gravesend, Bishop of Lincoln, ordered collections to 
be made in the churches of the Archidiaconates of Northampton 
and Huntingdon on their behalf; in 1277 Roger de Skeming, 
Bishop of Norwich, ordered collections to be made in his diocese 
for the repair of the church; in 1313 the OfiS.cial of the Arch- 
deacon of Ely wrote to the parochial clergy of the diocese re- 
commending the nuns to them as objects of charity, having 
lost their house and goods by fire, and in the same year Bishop 
Dalderby granted an indulgence on their behalf for this reason «; 
while in 13 14 John de Ketene, Bishop of Ely, confirmed the 
grants of indulgence made by his brother bishops to persons 
contributing to their relief and to the rebuilding of the house. 
The next indulgence mentioned is one of forty days granted by 

1 V.C.H. Northants. 11, pp. 114, 123, 116. 

2 V.C.H. Bucks. I, p. 353. = V.C.H. Lines, n, p. 157. 
* Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, fE. g6d, 2441^. 

" V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, pp. 115, 128, 161. 

« Cal. of Papal Letters, iv, p. 393; v, p. 373. 

' Except where otherwise stated the following references all occur in 
Gray, op. cit. p. 79 and are printed in full in R. Willis, Architectural Hist, 
of the Univ. of Cambridge, ed. J. WilUs Clark (1886), 11, pp. 183-6. 

8 Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, f. 96^. 


Thomas Arundel, Bishop of Ely, in 1376, also on the occasion < 
a fire; in 1389 Bishop Fordham of Ely granted another fort 
days indulgence for the repair of the church and cloister an 
for the relief of the nuns*, and in 1390 WilUam Courtenai 
Archbishop of Canterbury, made a similar grant, mentionin 
that the buildings had been ruined by violent storms; finall 
in 1457 Bishop Grey of Ely granted a forty days indulgence fc 
the repair of the bell-tower and for the maintenance of books 
vestments and other church ornaments^. There is no need t 
suppose that St Radegund's was in any way a particularl 
favoured house ; and such a list of grants shows that the Churc 
fulfilled conscientiously the duty of organising poor-reUef an< 
that the objects for which indulgences were granted were no 
always as unworthy as has sometimes been supposed^. 

The financial straits to which the smaller convents wer 
continually and the greater convents sometimes reduced gre\ 
out of a number of causes; and it is interesting to inquire wha 
brought the nuns to debt or to begging and why they were s^ 
often in difficulties, A study of monastic documents makes i 
clear that a great deal of this poverty was in no sense the faul 
of the nuns. Apart from obvious cases of insufficient endow 
ment, the medieval monasteries suffered from natural disasters 
which were the lot of all men, and from certain exactions a 
the hands of men, which fell exclusively upon themselves. 
natural disasters the frequency of fires has already been men 
tioned. Another danger, from which houses situated in low lyin 
land near a river or the sea were never free, was that of floods 
The inundation of their lands was declared one of the reasons fo 
appropriating the church of Bradford-on-Avon to Shaftesburyii 
1343 ; and in 1380 the nuns were allowed to appropriate anothe 
church, in consideration of damage done to their lands by en 
croachments of the sea and losses of sheep and cattle* In 137 
Barking suffered the devastation by flood of a large part of it 
possessions along the Thames and never recovered its forme 

1 Gray, op. cit. p. 36. ^ lb. pp. 37-8. 

' A few other references may be given: Bishop Fordham of Ely fc 
Rowney (1408) and Bishop Alcock of Ely for the Minories (1490). Gibboni 
Ely Epis. Records, pp. 406, 414. Bishop Sutton of Lincoln to Wothorp 
(1292). V.C.H. Northanis. n, p. 114. 

* V.C.H. Wilts. II, p. 77. 


osperityi; and in 1394 Bishop Fordham of Ely granted an 
iulgence for the nuns of Ankerwyke, whose goods had been 
stroyed by floods^. In the north the lands of St Leonard's, 
imsby, were flooded in 1459^; in 1445 the nuns of Esholt 
ffered heavy losses from the flooding of their lands near the 
rer Aire, which had been cultivated at great cost and from 
rich they derived their maintenance*; and in 1434 Archbishop 
Dtherham appealed for help for the nuns of Thicket, whose 
Ids and pasturages had been inundated and who had suffered 
uch loss by the death of their cattle^. Heavy storms are 
entioned as contributing to the distress of Shaftesbury in 
65^ and of St Radegund's, Cambridge, in 1390'. Moreover 
me houses suffered by their situation in barren and unpro- 
ictive lands. Easebourne in 141 1 complained of "the sterility 
the lands, meadows and other property of the priory, which 
situated in a sohtary, waste and thorny place"*; Heynings 
it forward the same plea in 1401^; and Flamstead in 13801". 

But far more terrible than fire and flood were those two other 
ourges, with which nature afflicted the men of the middle 
;es, famine and pestilence. The Black Death of 1348-9 was 
ily one among the pestilences of the fourteenth century; it 
id the result of "domesticating the bubonic plague upon the 
U of England"; for more than three centuries afterwards it 
ntinued to break out at short intervals, first in one part of 
e country and then in another ". The epidemics of the fourteenth 

1 V.C.H. Essex, 11, p. 119. References to this occur in 1380, 1382, 1384, 
92, 1402 and 1409, 

" Gibbons, Ely Epis. Recmds, p. 399. 

' V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 179. Cf. Thetford. V.C.H. Norfolk, 11, p. 355. 

' V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 161. * lb. p. 124. 

" V.C.H. Wilts. II, p. 77. The reference is perhaps to the famous storm 

St Maur's Day, 1362, which, together with the Black Death, is com- 
smorated in a graffito in the church of Ashwell (Herts.) and in a distich 
loted by Adam Murimuth 

C ter erant mille, decies sex unus et ille. 

Luce tua Maure, vehemens fuit impetus aurae, 

Ecce flat hoc anno, Maurus in orbe tonans. 

' Gray, op. cit. p. 79. 

8 Bishop Rede's Reg. (Sussex Rec. Soc), p. 137. 

' Cal. of Papal Letters, v, p. 347. 
" Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 301. 

•1 The following account of medieval plagues and famines is taken mainly 
Dm Creighton, Hist, of Epidemics in Britain, i, pp. 202-7, 215-223. See 
;o Denton, England in the Fifteenth Century, pp. 91-105. 


century were so violent that in forty years the chroniclers coun 
up five great plagues, beginning with the Black Death, an< 
Langland, in a metaphor of terrible vividness, describes th 
pestilence as "the rain that raineth where we rest should." Th 
Black Death was preceded by a famine pestilence in 13 17-8 
when there was "a grievous mortalitie of people so that th 
sicke might vnneath burie the dead." It was followed in 136 
by the Second Plague, which was especially fatal among th 
upper classes and among the young. The Third Plague in i368-( 
was probably primarily a famine sickness, mixed with plague 
The Fourth Plague broke out in 1375 ; and the Fifth, in 1390- 
was so prolonged and so severe as to be considered comparabl 
with the Black Death itself. Moreover these are only the grea 
landmarks, and scattered between them were smaller outbreak 
of sickness, due to scarcity or to spoiled grain and fruit. Th 
pestilences continued in the fifteenth century (more than twenty 
one are recorded in the chronicles), but, except perhaps for th 
great plague of 1439, they were seldom universal and came b; 
degrees to be confined to the towns, so that all who could use( 
to flee to the country when the summer heat brought out th 
disease in crowded and insanitary streets. But if country con 
vents escaped the worst disease, those situated in borough town 
ran a heavy risk. 

Often enough these plagues were preceded and accompanie( 
by famines, sometimes local and sometimes general. The Englis] 
famines had long been notorious and were enshrined in a popula 
proverb: "Tres plagae tribus regionibus appropriari solent, An 
glorum fames, GaUorum ignis, Normannorum lepra "^. The thre 
greatest outbreaks took place in 1 194-6, in 1257-9 ^^'^ i' 
1315-6 (before the plague of 1318-9). The dearth which cul 
minated in the last of these famines had begun as early as 1289 
and the misery in 13 15 was acute: 

"The beastes and cattell also," says Stow, translating from Trokf 
lowe, "by the corrupt grane whereof they fed, dyed, whereby it cair 
to passe that the eating of flesh was suspected of all men, for flesh ( 
beasts not corrupted was hard to finde. Horse-flesh was counts 
great dehcates the poore stole fatte dogges to eate; some (as it wc 
sayde) compelled through famine, in hidden places did eate the fles 
of their owne children, and some stole others, which they devoure( 

' Creighton, op. cit. i, p. 19. 


leeves that were in prisons did plucke in peeces those that were 
wly brought among them and greedily devoured them halfe alive." 

lere was another severe famine in 1322, and in 1325 a great 
ought, so that the cattle died for lack of water. Famine accom- 
mied the pestilences of 1361, 1369, 1391 and 1439; and these 
e only the more outstanding instances. Here again, however, 
e fourteenth century was on the whole worse off than the 
teenth; almost every year was a year of scarcity and the 
^erage price of wheat during the period 1261 to 1400 was 
;arly six shillings (i.e. nearly six pounds of modern money) 1. 
oreover the ravages of murrain among cattle and sheep were 
Lrdly intermittent from the end of the thirteenth to the middle 

the fifteenth century^. The fatal years 1315-9 included not 
ily a famine and a plague but also (1318-9) a murrain among 
e cattle, which was so bad that dogs and ravens, eating the 
ad bodies, were poisoned and died, and no man dared eat any 
ef. In the year of the Black Death also there was "a great 
ague of sheep in the realm, so that in one place there died in 
.sturage more than five thousand sheep and so rotted that 
ither beast nor bird would touch them " ; and murrains accom- 
nied the four other great plagues of the century. Indeed 
arth, murrain and pestilence went hand in hand, in that un- 
ppy time we caU the "good old days." 

These natural disasters could not but have an adverse effect 
on the fortunes of the monastic houses; and many charters 
d petitions contain clauses which specifically attribute the 
stress of this or that nunnery to one of the three causes 
scribed above. During the famine years of 1314-5 Walter 
lynolds, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the Bishop of 
inchester, urging him to take some steps for the rehef of the 
ns of Wintney, who were dispersing themselves in the world, 
:ause no proper provision was made for their food 3, and about 
i same time the convent of Clerkenwell addressed a petition 
Queen Isabel, stating that they were "moet enpouerees par 
durs annez" and begging her to procure for them the King's 
ve to accept certain lands and rents to the value of twenty 

1 Denton, op. cit. p. 93. 

^ lb. p. 93 sqq. 

3 V.C.H. Hants. 11, p. 150. He attributed their condition to negligence 

I bad administration. 


pounds 1. In 1326 (after the great drought) the nuns of King 
Mead, Derby, begged the King to take them under his sped; 
protection, granting the custody of the house to two custode 
on the ground that, owing to the badness of past years and th 
unusually heavy mortality among cattle their revenues wei 
reduced and they were unable to meet the claims made b 
guests upon their hospitahty^. The ravages of the Black Deat 
were most severe of all and many houses never recovered froi 
it ^. In the diocese of Lincoln the nunnery of Wothorpe lost a 
its members save one, whom the Bishop made Prioress; and i 
1354 it was annexed to St Michael's Stamford ^. Greenfield Priory 
when he visited it in 1350, "per tres menses stetit et sta 
priorisse solacio destituta"^; and other houses in this larg 
diocese which lost their heads were Fosse, Markyate, Hinchir 
brooke, Gracedieu, Rothwell, Delapre, Catesby, Sewardslej 
Littlemore and Godstow *. In the diocese of York the prioresse 
of Arthington, Kirklees, Wallingwells and St Stephen's Fouke 
holm died; the latter house, hke Wothorpe, failed to recove 
and is never heard of again '. Other parts of the country sufferei 
in the same way. At MaUing Abbey in Kent the Bishop mad 
two abbesses in succession, but both died and only four professei 
nuns and four novices remained, to one of whom the Bisho- 
committed the custody of the temporalities and to another tha 
of the spiritualities, because there was no fit person to be mad 
Abbess^. At Henwood, in August 1349, there was no Prioress," an( 
of the fifteen nuns who were lately there, three only remain"' 
The death of the nuns themselves was, moreover, the leas 
disastrous effect of the pestilence; it left a legacy of neglectei 
lands, poverty and labour troubles which lasted for long afte 

^ P.R.O. Ancient Correspondence , xxxvi, no. 201. 

^ V.C.H. Derby, 11, p. 43. See below, p. 200. 

' See P. G. Mode, The Influence of the Black Death on the Englis 
Monasteries (Univ. of Chicago, jgi6), passim. 

" Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 268. 

' A. Hamilton Thompson, Registers of John Gynewell, Bishop of Lincol 
for the years 1347-1350 (reprinted from Archaeol. Journ. LXViii, pp. 301 
360, 1912), p. 328. 

" •''*■ PP- 359-60. 

' A. Hamilton Thompson, The Pestilences of the Fourteenth Century i 
the Diocese of York (reprinted from Archaeol. Journ. Lxxi, pp. 97-15' 
1914), pp. 121-2. 

' \Vharton, Anglia Sacra, i, pp. 364, 375. 

° V.C.H. Warwick. 11, p. 65. 


new generation of sisters had forgotten the fate of their pre- 
cessors. The value of Flixton dwindled after the Black Death 
half its former income, and the house was never prosperous 
:ain^ In 135 1 the nuns of Romsey petitioned for leave to 
mex certain lands and advowsons and gave as one of the 
asons for their impoverishment " the diminution or loss of due 
id appointed rents, because of the death of tenants, carried 
E by the unheard of and unwonted pestilence "2, and in 1352 
e house of St Mary's Winchester made special mention, in peti- 
jning for the appropriation of a church, of the reduction of its 
nts and of the cattle plague ^. The other great plagues of the 
ntury aggravated the distress. St Mary's Winchester and 
laftesbury mentioned the pestilence (of 1361) in petitions to 
.e King three years later*. Four of the sixteen nuns of Carrow 
ed in the year of the third pestilence (1369) ', and in 1378, three 
lars after the fourth pestilence, the Ucence allowing Sewardsley 
appropriate the church of EastonNeston, recites that the value 
its lands had been so diminished by the pestilence that they 
) longer sufficed to maintain the statutory numbers ^. In 1381 
lentioned as a plague and famine year in some of the chronicles) 
bull of Urban IV, appropriating a church to Flamstead, after 
capitulating the slender endowments of the house, repeats the 
mplaint that 

e servants of the said priory are for the most part dead, and its 
■uses and tenants and beasts are so destroyed that its lands and 
ssessions remain as it were sterile, waste and uncultivated, where- 
re, unless the said Prioress and Convent be by some remedy suc- 
ured, they wiU be obliged to beg for the necessities of life from door 

. 1395, four years after the "Fifth" pestilence and itself 
year of bad plague and famine, the nuns of Legboume com- 
lined that their lands and tenements were uncultivated, 
m account of the dearth of cultivators and rarity of men, 
ising out of unwonted pestilences and epidemics "s. The out- 
eak of 1405-7 was followed by a petition from Easebourne 

1 V.C.H. Suffolk, 11, p. 116. ' Liveing, op. cit. p. 146. 

' Cal. of Papal Petitions, 1, p. 230. '' Cal. Pat. Rolls, 1364, pp. 21, 485. 
^ Rye, Carrow Abbey, p. 37. ' V.C.H. Northants. 11, p. 126. 

' Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 301. Their petition had been presented in 1380. 
C.H. Herts, iv, p. 433. 
8 Cal. Papal Le.tters, iv, p. 521. 


for licence to appropriate two churches, on the ground i 
"epidemics, death of men and of servants," and because 

the lands and tenements of the Prioress and Convent notorious 
suffer so great ruin that few tenants can be found willing to occuj 
the lands in these days, and the said lands, ever falling into a wor 
state, are so poor that they cannot supply the religious women wi1 
sufficient support for themselves or for the repair of their ruinoi 

The worst of these natural disasters was not the actu; 
damage done by each outbreak, but the fact that famine, mu: 
rain and pestilence followed upon pestilence, murrain and famir 
with such rapidity, that the poorer houses had no chance ( 
recovery from the initial blow dealt them by the Black Deatl 
The nuns of Thetford, for instance, were excused from th 
taxation of religious houses under Henry VI, on the ground the 
their revenues in Norfolk and in Suffolk were much decrease 
by the recent mortality and had so continued since 1349^. Eve 
the well-endowed houses found recovery difficult, and the histor 
of the great abbey of Shaftesbury illustrates the situation ver 
clearly. In 1365, shortly after the pestis secunda, the nuns n 
ceived a grant of the custody of their temporahties on the nes 
voidance, and losses by pestilence were mentioned as one reaso 
for the decline in their fortunes. In 1380 their lands were floode 
and they suffered heavy losses in sheep and cattle. In 1382 (th 
year of the fifth plague) they were obhged to petition once agai 
for help, representing that although their house was weU-endowe( 

toutes voies voz dites oratrices sont einsi arreriz a jour de huy, quo 
par les pestilences en queles lours tenantz sont trez toutz a po 
mortz, et par murryne de lour bestaille a grant nombre et valui 
nemye tant seulement a une place et a uve foUz, einz a diverses foitz e 
toutes leurs places, quoy par autres grandes charges quelles lour cor 
vient a fine force de jour en autre porter et sustenir, q'eles ne purron 
sinoun qe a moelt grant peine, sanz lour endangerer al diverses bon< 
gentz lours Creditours, mesner I'an a bon fyn'. 

Again towards the middle of the fifteenth century Bisho 
Ayscough sanctioned the appropriation of a church to the abbej 
which had pleaded its great impoverishment through pestilenc( 
failure of crops, want of labourers, and through the excessiv 

1 Bishop Rede's Reg. p. 137. 2 V.C.H. Norfolk, 11, p. 335. 

' Rot. Pari. Ill, p. 129 and Dugdale, Mon. 11, p. 485. 


demands of such labourers as could be obtained^. If Shaftesbury 
found recovery so difficult, it may easily be imagined what was 
the effect of the natural disasters of the fourteenth century upon 
smaller and less wealthy houses. 

The revenues of the nunneries, often scant to begin with and 
liable to constant diminution from the ravages of nature, were 
still more heavily burdened by a variety of exactions on the part 
of the authorities of Church and State. The procurations payable 
to the Bishop on his visitation fell heavily upon the smaller 
houses; hence such a notice as that which occurs in Bishop 
Nykke's Register under the year 1520: "Item the reverend 
father with his colleagues came down to the house of nuns that 
afternoon, and having seen the priory he dissolved his visitation 
there, on account of the poverty of the house "2. St Mary 
Magdalen's, Bristol, was on account of its poverty exempt from 
the payment of such procurations^ and the Bishops doubtless 
often exercised their charity upon such occasions *. Papal exac- 
tions were even more oppressive; John of Pontoise, Bishop of 
Winchester, pleaded with the papal nuncio in 1285 that he 
would forbear to exact procurations from the poor nuns of 
Wintney, whom the Bishop himself excused from all charges 
in view of their deep poverty 5; and in 1300 Bishop S^nfield] 
of Hereford made a similar appeal to the commissary of tHe 
nuncio, and secured the remission of procurations due from the 
nuns of Lingbrook and the relaxation of the sentence of excom- 
munication, which they had incurred through non-payment*. 

1 V.C.H. Dorset, 11, p. 77, 

' Visit, of Diocese of Norwich (Camden Soc), p. 155. 

' V.C.H. Glouc. II, p. 93. 

* On other occasions, however, they were careful to take all their due. 
Vide the great Bishop Grandisson's letter to the abbess and convent of 
Canonsleigh, announcing his forthcoming visitation and " mandantes quod 
in ilium eventum de procuracione ea occasione nobis debita providere 
curetis in pecunia numerata." Reg. of Bishop Grandisson, ed. Hingeston- 
Randolph, pt 11, p. 767. At Davington in 1511 the Prioress deposed that 
"the house has to pay 20s. to the Archbishop for board at the time of his 
visitation." E.H.R. vi, p. 28. 

^ Reg. Johannis de Pontissara (Cant, and York. Soc), I, p. 299. 

* Reg. Rich, de 3Snnfield^(Ca.nti\u-pe Soc), p. 366. Other cases of 
excommunication are sBmetimes to be found in Bishops' Registers, e.g. in 
1335 the Prioresses of Cokehill and Brewood were excommunicated for 
failure to pay the tenth; one owed g\d. and the other is. S^d. — paltry sums 
for which to damn a poor nun's soul ! Reg. Thomas de Charlton (Cantilupe 
Soc), p. 57. 


The obligation to pay tithes also fell heavily upon the poon 
houses ; it was for this reason that Archbishop John le Romey 
appealed to the Prior of Newburgh in 1286 not to exact tithe 
from the food of animals in Nether Sutton, belonging to th 
poor nuns of Arden^; and in 1301 the Prior of Worcester desire 
his commissary to spare the poverty of the nuns of WestwoO' 
and not to exact tithes or any other things due to him from ther 
or from their churches-. Added to ecclesiastical exactions were th 
taxes due to the Crown. In 1344 the nuns of Da\'ington addressei 
a petition to Edward III, representing that, owing to their grea 
poverty, they were unable to satisfy the King's pubhc aid 
without depriving themselves of their necessary subsistence, ; 
plea which was found to be true^. The frequency with whicl 
such petitions for exemption from the payment of taxes wer 
made and granted, is in itself a proof that the burden of taxatioi 
was a real one, for the Crown would not have excused its dues 
unless the need for such an act of charity had been great*; am 
it is obvious that the sheer impossibility of collecting the mone; 
from a poverty-stricken house must often have left little alterna 
tive. The houses that did contribute were not slow to complain 
"The unwonted exactions and tallages with which their housi 
and the whole of the English Church has been burdened" wen 
pleaded by the nuns of Heynings as in part responsible for thei 
poverty in 1401 ^; similarly " the necessary and very costly exac 

' Reg. John le Romeyn (Surtees Soc). I, p. 159. 

2 Reg. Sede Vacante (Wore. Hist. Soc), p. 62. Cf. remission of tithes b; 
Bishop Dalderby to Greenfield, because of its poverty. V.C.H. Lina 
II, p. 155. Some Cistercian houses held papal bulls exempting them frou 
the payment of tithes, e.g. Sinningthwaite and Swine. Dugdale, Mor, 
V, pp. 463, 494. 

' Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 288. 

^ For a few out of many instances of remission of payment on accoun 
of poverty see Ivinghoe, Little Marlow, Burnham {V.C.H. Bucks, i, pp. 353 
358, 382); Cheshunt (V.C.H. Herts, iv, pp. 426-7); Stixwould, Heynings 
Greenfield, Fosse, St Leonard's Grimsby {V.C.H. Lines. 11, pp. 122, 147 
149, 155, 157, 179); Catesby {V.C.H. Northants. 11, p. 122); Ickleton, Swaff 
ham, Chatteris, St Radegund's Cambridge (Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 439) 
Mailing (76. in, p. 382); St Mary Magdalen's Bristol {V.C.H. Glouc. 11, p. 93) 
Minchin Barrow (Hugo, op. cit. -p. 108); Blackborough {V.C.H. Norfolk 
II, p. 351); Arden {V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 113); Nunkeeling and Nunappletoi 
{Reg. John le Romeyn, 1, pp. 140, 234); Wintney {V.C.H. Hants. 11, p. 150) 

' Cal. of Papal Letters, v, p. 347. Compare the case of the hospital 
St James of Canterbury which " grievoussement ad estez chargez pur divers^ 
contribucions faitz au Roy entre les laiz, on les biens. . .ne sufficent mye ala sus 
tinaunce de la Priouresse et les secures." Hist. MSS.Conim. Report, ix,'p.8j 


tions of tenths and other taxes and unsupportable burdens" 
occurs in a complaint by Romsey in 135 1; and the Abbess and 
Convent of St Mary's, Winchester, stated in 1468, that they 
were so burdened with the repair of their buildings and with 
the payment of imposts, that they could not fulfil the obliga- 
tions of their order as to hospitality*. 

Nor was taxation for public purposes the only demand made 
upon the religious houses. Abbeys holding of the King in chief 
had to perform many services appertaining to tenants in chief, 
which seem oddly incongruous in the case of nunneries. The Ab- 
besses of Shaftesbury, St Mary's Winchester, Wilton and Barking, 
were baronesses in their own right ; the privilege of being sum- 
moned to parliament was omitted on account of their sex ; but 
the duty of sending a quota of knights and soldiers to serve the 
King in his wars was regularly exacted^. In 1257 Agnes Ferrar, 
Abbess of Shaftesbury, was summoned to Chester to attend 
the expedition against Llewelyn ap Griffith, and her successor, 
Juliana Bauceyn, was also summoned in 1277 to attack that 
intrepid prince^ The Abbess of Romsey had to find a certain 
number of men-at-arms with their armour for the custody of 
the maritime land in the county of Southampton; she resisted 
when an attempt was made to exact an archer as well and 
successfully showed the King "that she has only two marks' 
rent in Pudele Bardolveston in that county" *. Less lawful exac- 
tions were even more burdensome, and the nunneries suffered 
with the rest of the nation under the demand for loans and the 
burden of purveyance ^. In December 1307 the Abbess of Barking, 
in common with the heads of ten other rehgious houses, was 
requested to lend the King 

two carts and horses to be at Westminster early on the day of 
St Stephen to carry vessels and equipments of the King's household 
to Dover, the King having sent a great part of his carts and sumpter 
horses to sea, so that he may find them ready when he arrives"; 

1 Cal. of Pat. Rolls, 1467-77, pp. 138, 587. 

- Dugdale, Mon. 11, p. 472. Cf. p. 328. 

= lb. p. 473. Cf. Pari. Writs (Rec. Comm.), 11, div. 3, 1424. 

* Cal. of Close Rolls, 1339-41. PP- 215. 217. 

^ On this subject see Rose Graham, St Gilbert of Sempringham and the 
Gilbertines, pp. 90-2. 

» Cal. of Close Rolls, 1307-13, p. 50. Compare the entry in the treasur- 
esses' account of St Michael's, Stamford, for 1392-3. " Item done en curtasy 
a le Balyf de Roy quant nostre carre fuist areste al seruice del roy viijd." 
P.R.O. Ministers' Accounts, 1260/10. 


it is true that he engaged to pay out of his wardrobe the costs 
of the men leading the carts and of the horses going and returning, 
but meanwhile the Abbey lost their services, and carts and horses 
were very necessary on a manor; moreover it was common 
complaint that the tallies given by the King's servants for whal 
they took were sometimes of no more value than the wood 
whereof they were made: 

I had catell, now have I none; 
They take my beasts and done them slon, 
And payen but a stick of tree. 

Similarly in June 1310 the King sent out a number of letters 
to the heads of religious houses, requesting the "loan " of various 
amounts of victuals for his Scottish expedition, and among th( 
houses upon whom this call was made were the nunneries 0: 
Catesby, Elstow, St Mary's Winchester, Romsey, Wherwell 
Barking, Nuneaton, Shaftesbury and Wilton^. 

The nunneries also suffered considerable pecuniary loss bj 
the right possessed in certain cases by the patron of a house, tc 
take the profits of its temporahties during voidance through th< 
death or resignation of its superior, sometimes enjoying then 
himself and sometimes granting the custody of the house tc 
someone else^- It is obvious that serious loss might be entailec 
upon the community, if the patron refrained for some time fron 
granting his conge d'elire. It was for this reason that the Conven 
of Whiston wrote in 1308 to the Bishop-elect of Worcester, thei 
patron, praying that "considering the smallness of the posses 
sions of the nuns of Whiston, in his patronage, which compeUe( 
the nuns formerly to beg, and for the honour of religion an( 
the frailness of the female sex" he would grant them licenc 
to elect a new prioress and would confirm the same election 
and the Prior of Worcester also addressed a letter to the com 
missary-general on their behalf^. The King exercised with grea 
regularity his rights of patronage, and the direct pecuniary loss 
sustained by a house in being deprived of the profits of it 
temporahties, seems to have been the least of the evils whic 

' Cal. 0} Close Rolls, 1307-13, pp. 262-6, passim. 

' For instance in 1275 the King granted the custody of Bcurking Abbe; 
void and in his hands, to his mother, Queen Eleanor. Cal. of Close Roll 
1272-9, p. 210. 

' Reg. Sede Vacanie (Wore. Rec. Soc), pp. 112-3. Compare the petitic 
of St Mary's Chester to Queen Eleanor, p. 172 above. 


jsulted, if the state of affairs described in the petition addressed 
3 the crown by the Abbess and Convent of Shaftesbury in 1382 
'as at all common. After a moving description of the straits 
3 which they were reduced^, they begged that the King would, 
n future occasions of voidance, allow the community to retain 
le administration of the Abbey and of its temporalities, rendering 
ie value thereof to the King while the voidance lasted, so that 
o escheator, sheriff or other officer should have power to meddle 
'ith them: 

nderstanding, most redoubtable lord, that by means of your grace in 
lis matter great relief and amendment, please God, shall come to your 
ime house, and no damage can ensue to you or to your heirs, nor to 
Qy other, save only to your officers, who in such times of voidance 
re wont to make great destructions and wastes and to take therefrom 
reat and divers profits to their own use, whence nothing cometh to 
our use, as long as the said voidance endures, if only for a short time 2. 

t Mary's, Winchester, also pleaded the royal administration of 
s temporalities as one reason for its impoverishment, when 
etitioning the Pope for leave to appropriate the church of 
royle in 1343 and 1346^. 

Sometimes the abbeys found it cheaper to compound with 
le King for a certain sum of money and thus to purchase the 
ght of administering their own temporalities, saving to the 
.ing, as a rule, knights' fees, advowsons, escheats and some- 
mes wards and marriages. Romsey Abbey secured this privi- 
ge, after the escheator had already entered, in 13 15, for a fine 
: forty marks; but in 1333, when there was another voidance, 
le convent had to agree to pay £40 for the first two months 
id pro rata for such time as the voidance continued, saving to 
le King knights' fees, advowsons and escheats*. In 1340 the 
>yal escheator was ordered to let the Prioress and Convent of 

' See above, p. 182. 

' Dugdale, Mon. 11, p. 485 and Rot. Pari, in, p. 129. The petition was 
anted, but the nuns seem to have shown themselves unworthy of the 
yal clemency, for, after the death of Abbess Joan Furmage in 1394, the 
ing was forced to abrogate the grant, because by fraudulent means an 
;ction had been obtained of an unfit person, who, with the object of 
curing confirmation, had repaired with an excessive number of men to 
ices remote, to the waste and desolation of the convent. Cal. of Pat. Rolls, 
91-6, p. 511- 

' Cal. of Papal Petitions, i, pp. 56-7. 

* Cal. of Close Rolls (1313-8), p. 189 and ih. (1333-7), PP- 70-1; cf. 

(1307-13), p. I and »6. (1323-7). P- 252 and ib. (1349-54), p. 29. 


Wherwell have the custody of their temporahties, in accordanc 
with a grant made some years previously, by which the hous 
was to render £230 for a year and pro rata^. In 1344 a simila 
order was made in the case of Wilton, whose late Abbess (pruden 
woman) had seized the opportunity to purchase the right fo 
£60 from the King, when he lay at Orwell before crossing th 
sea^. Similarly, the next year, Shaftesbury received the custod; 
of its temporalities in consideration of a fine of £100, made witl 
the King by its Abbess, in the second year of his reign^. Witl 
four great abbeys falling vacant in httle over ten years, th 
royal exchequer reaped a good harvest ; and though the paymen 
of a lump sum was better than falling into the hands of th 
escheator, and though the nuns would make haste to elect a ne\ 
abbess as soon as possible, a voidance was always a costly matter 
But perhaps the most serious tax upon the resources of th 
nunneries was the right, possessed by some dignitaries (notabl 
the King and the Bishop of the diocese), to nominate to house 
in their patronage persons whom the nuns were obliged to receiv 
as members of their community or to support as corrodian; 
pensioners or boarders. The right of nominating a nun migh 
be exercised upon a variety of occasions. The Archbishop migh 
do so to certain houses in his province on the occasion of his const 
oration, and this right was energetically enforced by Peckham 
who nominated girls to Wherwell, Castle Hedingham, Burnhan 
Stratford, Easebourne and Catesby*. A Bishop possessed, i 
some cases, a similar right on the occasion of his consecratior 
Rigaud d'Assier, Bishop of Winchester, sent nuns to Romsej 
St Mary's Winchester and Wherwell 5; Ralph of Shrewsburj 
Bishop of Bath and WeUs, nominated to Minchin Barrow and t 
Cannington^; Stephen Gravesend, Bishop of London, sent a gi; 

^ Cal. of Close Rolls (1339-41), p- 377- 

= lb. (1343-6), pp. 407-8- Cf. p. 418. 

^ Ih. (1343-6), p. 599. The profits during vacancy were similarly r 
mitted to Godstow in 1385 "because of its poverty and misfortunes 
(V.C.H. Oxon. II, p. 73). 

* Reg. Epist. Johannis Peckham (Rolls Ser.), i, pp. 40-1, 56-7, 189-9 
356-7, 366-7, 577. 

' Reg. of. ..Rigaud de Asserio (Hants. Rec. Soc), pp. 387, 388, 394- 
Compare nominations of John de Pontoise. Reg. fohannis de Pontissa 
(Cant, and York. Soc), i, pp. 240, 241, 252 and of William of Wykehai 
Wykeham's Reg. (Hants. Rec. Soc), 11, pp. 60, 61. 

' Reg. of Ralph of Shrewsbury (Somerset Rec. Soc), pp. 26, 39, 146. 


Barking!; and the successive bishops of Sahsbury exercised 
e prerogative of placing an inmate in Shaftesbury Abbey and 

appointing one of the nuns to act as her instructor^. The 
istence of this right seems to have varied with different 
oceses and its exaction with different bishops, if it is possible 

judge from the absence of commendatory letters in some 
gisters and their presence in others. The Bishop of a diocese 
30 sometimes had the right of presenting a nun to a house 
hen a new superior was created there. This was the case at 
omsey, where nuns were thus nominated in 1307, 1333 and 
597^, and at Romsey also there occurs one instance (the only 
le of the kind which search has yet yielded) of the nomination 
■ a nun by the bishop, because of " a profession of ladies of that 
3use which he had lately made." Bishop Stratford thus ap- 
ainted Jonette de Stretford (perhaps a poor relative) "en regard 
; charite" in 1333, a month after having appointed Alice de 
Hampton by reason of the Abbess' creation*. 

The King possessed in houses under his patronage rights of 
omination corresponding to those of the Bishop. That of pre- 
;nting a nun on the occasion of his coronation was frequently 
tercised. Edward II sent ladies to Barking, Wherwell and 
t Mary's Winchester S; Barking received nuns from Richard II, 
[enry IV and Henry VI ^ and Shaftesbury from Richard II, 
[enry V and Henry VI '. He also possessed the right in certain 
bbeys of presenting a nun on the occasion of a voidance and 
lere are many such letters of presentation enroUed upon the 
lose roUs; for instance Joan de la Roche was sent to Wilton 
1 1322 8, Katherine de Arderne to Romsey in 1333' and Agnes 
"urberville to Shaftesbury in 1345 ^°. 

Sometimes similar rights to these were exercised by private 
ersons, who held the patronage of a house or with whom it was 
onnected by special ties; the family of le Rous of Imber, for 

1 Reg....Stephani de Gravesend (Cant, and York. Soc), p. 200. 
" Dugdale, Man. u, p. 473 and V.C.H. Dorset, 11, p. 75. 
" Liveing, op. cit. pp. 97-8 and Wykeham's Reg. 11, pp. 461-2. 
' Liveing, op. cit. p. 98. 

= Cal. of Close Rolls {1307-8), pp. 48, 53, 134. 

« V.C.H. Essex, 11, p. 117. ' V.C.H. Dorset, 11, pp. 76-7. 

* Cal. of Close Rolls {i$i8-2^), -p. 517. She was still unadmitted in 1327, 
rhen the order was repeated. lb. (1327-30), p. 204. 

» lb. (1333-7), P- 175- " ^'^- (1343-6), p. 604. 


example, had the right (resigned in 1313) of presenting two nuns, 
with a valet, to Romsey Abbeyi. But the royal rights were 
always the most burdensome and, though such privileges as 
those described above, and the even more burdensome right to 
demand corrodies and pensions, normally affected only great 
abbeys such as Barking, Romsey, St Mary's Winchester, and 
Shaftesbury, the smaller houses (not under royal patronage) 
were not always exempt from sudden demands — witness the 
case of Polsloe below — and a wide range of nunneries was 
affected by archiepiscopal and episcopal rights. Moreover even 
the great houses, in spite of their large endowments, were 
crippled by the system, as may be gathered from their constant 
complaints of poverty and of overcrowding. The obligation to 
receive fresh inmates by nomination was especially burdensome 
when it was incurred on more than one occasion by the same 
house and coincided with other exactions. Thecase of Shaftesbury 
is noticeable in this connection ; the King claimed the right to 
administer its temporalities during voidance, to nominate a nun 
on his own coronation and on the election of an Abbess, to 
demand a pension for one of the royal clerks on the latter occa- 
sion, and to send boarders or corrodians for maintenance; and 
the Bishop of Salisbury could nominate a nun on his own pro- 
motion to the see and could demand a benefice for one of his 
clerks on the election of an Abbess. It is, of course, possible 
that all these prerogatives were not invariably exercised and 
that a new inmate was not sent to Shaftesbury every time a 
King was crowned, a Bishop consecrated or an Abbess elected; 
but it was exercised sufficiently often to be a strain upon the 

Even when the right of nomination was confined to one 
occasion, it seems to have been generally resented and frequently 
resisted. The reason for resistance lay in the fact that the house 
was forced to support another inmate without the hope of re- 
ceiving the donation of land or rents, which medieval fathers 
gave to the convents in which their daughters took the veil; 
and as the dowry system became more and more common, the 

1 Liveing, op. cit. p. 99, and in the Register of Bishop Norbury of Lich- 
field there is a certificate (dated 1358) of "having admitted, twenty years 
ago, thirty nuns at Nuneaton at the request of the patron, the E. of Lan- 
caster," Will Salt Arch. Soc. Coll. i, p. 286. Perhaps there is a clerical error. 


hardship of having to receive a nun for nothing would soon 
appear intolerable. In some cases a sturdy resistance against 
this "dumping" of nuns finds an echo in the bishops' Registers. 
Four houses out of the six to which Peckham nominated new 
inmates attempted a refusal, and the excuses which they offered 
are interesting. Two years after his consecration the nuns of 
Burnham were still refusing to receive his protegee, Matilda 
de Weston; they had begun by trying to question his right to 
nominate and he seems to have taken legal action against them, 
after which they pleaded poverty (resulting from an unsuccessful 
lawsuit) and also an obhgation to receive no novice without the 
consent of Edmund Earl of Cornwall, son of their founder. The 
Archbishop directed a stem letter to them, rejecting both their 
excuses and announcing his intention of pursuing his right, but 
the end of the matter is not known i. An equally determined 
resistance was offered by the Prioress of Stratford, who had been 
ordered to receive Isabel Bret. In 1282 Peckham wrote to her 
for the third time, declaring that her excuses were frivolous; she 
had apparently objected that the girl was too young and that 
her house was too hea\dly burdened with nuns, lay sisters and 
debts for another inmate to be received, but the Archbishop 
declared the youth of the candidate to be rather a merit than 
a defect and pointed out that, so far from being a burden to 
their house, she would bring it honour, for by receiving her they 
would multiply distinguished friends and benefactors and would 
be able to rely on his own special protection in their affairs^. 
A further letter to the Bishop of London is interesting, because 
it mentions a third objection made by the recalcitrant nunnery. 

"We have received your letter," writes Peckham, "in favour of the 
Prioress and Convent of Stratford, urgently begging us to moderate 
our purpose concerning a certain burden which is alleged to be 
threatening them from us, on account of the insupportable weight 
and the poverty of the house and the deformity of the person, whom 
we have presented to them for admission. Concerning which we would 
have you know that already in the lifetime of your predecessor of 
good memory, we had ordered them to receive that same person and 
for two years we continued to believe that they would yield to our 

1 Reg. Epist. Johannis Peckham (Rolls Ser.), i, pp. i8g-go. 

2 lb. I, pp. 356-7. The reference to "distinguished friends and bene- 
factors" is interesting, because she was the daughter of Robert Bret, 
" civis London." 


wishes in the matter, yet without burden to themselves, by the pro- 
vision of the parents of the said httle maid; especially seeing that 
never yet have we been burdensome to any monastery making a 
truthful plea of indigence. We beheve that what they allege about 
deformity would be an argument in favour of our proposal; would 
that not only these women of Stratford, concerning whom so many 
scandals abound, but also all who so immodestly expose themselves 
to human conversation and company, were or at least appeared 
notable for such deformity that they should tempt no one to crime ! 
We have moreover heard that the greater part of the convent would 
willingly consent to the reception of the girl, were they not hindered 
by the malice of the prioress; nevertheless, lest we should seem deaf 
to your entreaties, we suspend the whole business until we come to 
London, to ascertain how our purpose may be carried out without 
notable damage to themi." 

The Archbishop had his way however ; for eleven years later the 
will of Robert le Bret was enrolled in the Court of Husting and 
contained a legacy of rents on CornhiU " to Isabella his daughter, 
a nun of Stratford "2. Peckham also wrote in a tone of strained 
patience to the nuns of Castle Hedingham, who had refused to 
receive Agnes de Beauchamp, warning them that besides in- 
curring severe punishment at his own hands, further obstinacy 
would offend the Queen of England, at whose instance he had 
undertaken the promotion of the said Agnes^. The Prioress of 
Catesby was equally troublesome and as late as 1284 the Arch- 
bishop wrote reprimanding her for her inconstancy and feigned 
excuses, because, after promising to receive the daughter of Sir 
Robert de Caynes and after repeated requests on his part that 
they should admit the girl, she and her nuns had written asking 
to be allowed to admit another person in her stead*. 

Real poverty often nerved the nuns to such bold resistance. 
In the Register of Bishop Grandisson of Exeter there is a letter 
from Polsloe Priory, written in 1329 and addressed to Queen 
Philippa, on the subject of a certain Johanete de Tourbevyle^, 

1 Op. cit. I, pp. 366-7. The assertion that the convent was required to 
receive Isabel " without burden to themselves by the provision of the parents 
of the said little maid" is interesting, partly because it suggests that the 
royal and episcopal nominees were not always received at a loss, partly 
because it looks suspiciously like a condonation of the dowry system by an 
otherwise strict disciplinarian. 

2 Sharpe, Cal. of Wills, i, p. iii. 

2 Op. cit. I, pp. 56-7. ^ 76. 11, p. 704. 

^ An Agnes Turberville was sent by the King to Shaftesbury in 1345. 
Cal. of Close Rolls, 1343-6, p. 604. 


whom she had requested the nuns to receive as a lay sister. 
Written in the French of their daily speech, with no attempt at 
formal phraseology, their naive plea still rings with the agitation 
of the "poor and humble maids," torn between anxiety not to 
burden their impecunious house, and fear of offending the new- 
made Queen of England: 

To their very honourable and very powerful and redoubtable lady, 
my lady Darae Philippa, by the grace of God queen of England, etc., 
her poor and humble maids, the nuns of Polsloe, in all that they may of 
reverence and honour; beseeching your sweet pity to have mercy on 
our great poverty. Our very noble dame, we have received your letters, 
by the which we understand that it is your -will that we receive 
Johanete de Tourbevyle among us as sister of the house, to take the 
dress of a nun in secular habit. Concerning the which matter, most 
debonair lady, take pity upon us, if it please you, for the love of God 
and of His mother. For certainly never did any queen demand such 
a thing before from our little house; though mayhap they be accus- 
tomed to do so from other houses, founded by the kings and holding 
of them in chief; but this do not we, wherefore it falls heavily upon us. 
And if it please your debonair highness to know our simple estate, we 
are so poor (God knows it and all the country) that what we have 
sufifices not to our small sustenance, who must by day and night do 
the service of God, were it not for the aid of friends; nor can we be 
charged with seculars without reducing the number of us religious 
women, to the diminution of God's service and the perpetual prejudice 
of our poor house. And we have firm hope in God and in your great 
bounty that vou will not take it ill that this thing be not done to the 
peril of our souls; for to entertain and to begin such a new charge in 
such a small place, a charge which would endure and would be de- 
manded for ever afterwards, would be too great a danger to your soul, 
my Lady, in the sight of God, wherefrom God by His grace defend 
you ! Our most blessed I-ady, may God give you a long and happy life, 
to His pleasure and to the aid and solace of ourselves and of other 
poor servants of God on earth; and we should have great joy to do 
your behests, if God had given us the power'. 

The nuns evidently asked the support of the Bishop (which 
accounts for the presence of their letter in his Register) for 
about the same time Grandisson also wrote an informal letter 
in French to the King, begging him to give up his design to 
place his cousin Johanete de Tourbevyle at Polsloe, on the 
ground that the nuns held all that they possessed in frank 
almoign and were so poor that it would be unpardonable to 

' Reg. of Bishop Grandisson, ed. Hingeston-Randolph, i, pp. 213-4. 
P.N. 13 


entail upon them a charge, which would become a precedent 
for ever: 

"Wherefore, dear Sire," he continued, "If it please you, hold us ex- 
cused of this thing and put this thought from you. And for love of 
you, to whom we are much beholden aforetime, and to show you that 
we make no feigned pretence, ordain, if it please you, elsewhere 
for her estate, and we will very wilhngly give somewhat reasonable 
out of our own goods towards it; for this we may safely do^" 

It is not impossible that the disincUnation of the nunneries 
to receive royal and episcopal nominees was in part due to dis- 
like of taking an entirely unknown person into the close life of 
the community, in which so much depended upon the character 
and disposition of the individual. The right seems nearly always 
to have been exercised in favour of well-born girls, but though 
the bishops endeavoured to send only suitable novices, their 
knowledge of the character of their protegees would sometimes 
appear to have rested upon hearsay rather than upon personal 
acquaintance — " ut credimus," "come nous sumez enformez." On 
at least one occasion the nuns who resisted a bishop's nominee 
were to our knowledge justified by later events. In 1329 Ralph 
of Shrewsbury, the new Bishop of Bath and Wells, wrote to the 
Prioress and Convent of Cannington, desiring them to receive 
AUce, daughter of John de Northlode, to whom he had granted 
the right, "par resoun de nostre premiere creacion," on the 
request of Sir John Mautravers; four years later he was obliged 
to repeat the order, because the convent "had not yet been 
willing to receive the said Alice." The end of the story is to 
be found in the visitation report of 1351^- It is impossible to 
say whether the convent corrupted Alice or Alice the convent; 
but it is unfortunate that the Bishop's nominee should have 
been implicated. 

The obligation to receive a nun on the nomination of the 
king or the bishop was not the only burden upon the finances 
of the nunneries. Abbeys in the patronage of the Crown were 
upon occasion obliged also to find maintenance for other persons, 
men as well as women, who never became members of their 
community. The right to demand a pension for one of the royal 

' Op. cit. I, pp. 222-3. Does the Bishop mean that he will help to provide 
a dowry for Johanete out of his private purse, in another religious house? 
^ See below, p. 45-:. 


clerks was sometimes exercised on the occasion of a voidance, 
and the money had in most cases to be paid until such time as 
the young man was provided with a suitable benefice by the 
Abbey. The Abbess of Romsey was ordered to give a pension 
to William de Dereham in 1315 by reason of her new election^; 
John de St Paul was sent to the same house in 1333^, William 
de TydesweU in 1349^ The right is also found in exercise at 
Wherwell*, St Mary's, Winchester^, Shaftesbury^ Wilton', De- 
lapre (Northampton) ^ Barking' and Elstowi". In certain cases 
the Bishop possessed a similar right on the occasion of his own 
consecration; for instance John of Pontoise, Bishop of Win- 
chester, wrote to the Abbess of St Mary's, Winchester, in 1283, 

that whereas his predecessors had by a laudable custom presented 
their own clerks to the first benefice in the patronage of a religious 
house vacant after their establishment in the bishopric, they (the 
nuns) had recently presented a nominee of their own to a benefice 
then vacant. 

Two years later the Abbess and Convent of Wherwell wrote to 
him, voluntarily offering him the next vacant benefice in their 
patronage for one of his clerks; and in 1293 he reminded the 
nuns of Romsey that they were bound by agreement to do like- 
wise^i. Similarly Simon of Ghent, Bishop of Salisbury, directed 
the Abbess of Shaftesbury to provide for Humphrey Wace in 
1297^^. The demand to pension a clerk, like the demand to receive 
a nun, was sometimes resisted by the convents. In the early 
part of his reign Edward II ordered the Sheriff of Bedford 

to distrain the Abbess of Elstow by all her lands and chattels in his 
baUiwick and to answer to the King for the issues and to have her 

1 Cal. of Close Rolls (1313-8), p. 210. A few months later, however, 
Richard de Ayreminn was sent on the same pretext (p. 312). 

2 Op. cit. (1333-7), P- 175- ' Op. cit. (1349-54), p. 82. 
^ Op. cit. (1339-41), p. 466. '• Op. cit. (1337-9), p. 286. 
' Op. cit. (1343-6), p. 652. 

' Op. cit. (1318-23), p. 517; (1343-6). P- 475- 

* Op. cit. (1327-30), p. 366. 

» Op. cit. (1313-8). P- 611; (1327-30), p. 564; (1341-3), p. 133. 

"• See below. For the prebendal stalls in the churches of five of these 
abbeys (Romsey, Wherwell, St Mary's Winchester, Shaftesbury and Wiltoo) , 
see above, p. 144. 

" Reg. Johannis de Poniissara (Cant, and York. Soc), i, pp. 243-4, 300-1. 


" Reg. Simonis de Gandavo (Cant, and York. Soc), pp. 2-3. 

13 — 2 


body before the King at the octaves of Hilary next, to answer why, 
whereas she and her convent, by reason of the new creation of an 
Abbess, were bound to give a pension to a clerk, to be named by the 
King and he had transferred the option to his sister EUzabeth 
Countess of Hereford and had asked the Abbess to give it to her 
nominee they had neglected to do so^ 

The end of the story is contained in a petition printed in the 
Rolls of Parliament, wherein the Abbess and Convent of "Dune- 
stowe" (Elstow) informed the King in 1320 

que, come il les demaunde par son Brief devant Sire H. le Scrop et 
ses compaignons une enpensione pur un de ses clercs par reson de la 
novele Creadon la dite Abbesse et tiel enpensione unqs devant ces 
temps ne fust demaunde ne donee de la dite meson, fors tant soule- 
ment que la dereyn predecessere dona a la requeste nostre Seigneur 
le Roy a la Dameysele la Countesse de Hereford, un enpension de c s. 
Par qi eles prient que nostre Seigneur le Roy voet, si lui plest, com- 
ander de soursere de execucion faire de la dife demaunde, que la dite 
Abbay est foundee de Judit, jadis Countess de Huntingdon, et la dite 
enpension unques autrement done-. 

The reference to the Countess of Hereford's "dameysele" shows 
that the pension was not invariably given to a clerk, and it 
appears that the King tried to substitute corrodies, pensions 
and reception as a nun for each other according to the exigencies 
of the moment. In 1318 he sent Simon de Tyrelton to the Abbess 
and Convent of Barking, 

they being bound to grant a pension to one of the King's clerks, by 
reason of the new creation of an abbess, and the King having re- 
quested them to grant in Ueu of such pension the allowance of one 
of their nuns to EUen, daughter of Alice de Leygrave, to be received 
by her for life, to which they replied that they could not do so, for 
certain reasons'. 

In 1313, in pursuance of his right to nominate a nun on the new 
creation of an abbess, he had sent Juliana de Leygrave "niece 
of the King's foster-mother, who suckled him in his youth," to 
St Mary's, Winchester, in order that she might be given a nun's 
corrody for life (the value of which was to be given her wherever 
she might be) and a suitable chamber within the nunnery for 
her residence, whenever she might wish to stay there*. 

' Hist. MSS. Comm. Report, iv, p. 329. 

2 Rot. Pari. I, p. 381. John de Houton, clerk, had been sent to Elstow 
in 1318 (Cal. of Close Rolls (1318-23), p. 119). 
^ Cal. of Close Rolls (1313-8), p. 611. 
4 Op. cit. (1307-13), pp. 581-2. 


The obligation to provide corrodies for royal nominees pressed 
more heavily than the duty of pensioning royal clerks. A corrody 
was originally a hvery of food and drink given to monks and 
nuns, but the term was extended to denote a daily livery of 
food given to some person not of the community and frequently 
accompanied by suitable clothing and a room in which to live. 
Hence corrodians were often completely kept in board and 
lodging, having the right to everything that a nun of the house 
would have (a "nun's corrody") and sometimes allowed to keep 
a .private servant, who had the right to the same provision as 
the regular domestics of the house (a "servant's corrody"). The 
King, indeed, looked upon the monastic houses of his realm as 
a sort of vast Chelsea Hospital, in which his broken-down 
servants, yeomen and officials and men-at-arms, might end their 
days. Thus he obtained their grateful prayers without putting 
his hand into his purse. There must have been hundreds of such 
old pensioners scattered up and down the country, and judging 
from the number of cases in which one man is sent to receive 
the maintenance lately given to another, deceased, some houses 
had at least one of them permanently on the premises. Many a 
hoary veteran found his way into the quiet precincts of a 
nimnery : 

His helmet now shall make a hive for bees ; 

And, lovers' sonnets tum'd to holy psalms, 
A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees. 

And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms. 

In the intervals between feeding on prayers he must have been 

vastly disturbing and enthralhng to the minds of round-eyed 

novices, with his tales of court and camp, of life in London 

town or long campaigns in France, or of how John Copeland had 

the King of Scots prisoner and what profit he got thereby. 

In the last three months of 13 16 Edward II sent seventeen 

old servants to various religious houses, and among them Henry 

de Oldyngton of the avenary was sent to Barking, to receive 

such maintenance as William de Chygwell, deceased, had in that 

house'^ In 1328 Roger atte Bedde, the King's yeoman, who served 

the King and his father, was sent to St Mary's, Winchester, 

1 Cal. of Close Rolls (13 13-8), p. 437. The avenere was an officer of the 
household who had the charge of supplying provisions for the horses. See 
PrompioHum Parvulorum (Camden Soc), i, p. 19, n. 2. 


instead of James le Porter, deceased^; and in 1329 the Abbess 
and Convent of Shaftesbury were requested to admit to their 
house Richard Knight, spigurnel of the King's chancery, who 
had long served the King and his father in that office, and to 
administer to him for his hfe such maintenance in all things 
as Robert le Poleter, deceased, had in their house*. The unlucky 
convent of Wilton apparently had to support two pensioners, 
for in 1328 Roger Liseway was sent there in place of Roger 
Danne and the next year John de Odiham, yeoman of the 
chamber of Queen Phihppa, took the place of John de Asshe^ 

It was doubtless even more common for the widows of the 
King's dependents to be sent to nunneries, and he must often 
have received such a petition as was addressed by Agnes de 
Vylers to Edward III : 

A nostre Seigneur le Roi at a son Conseil, prie vostre poure veve 
Agneys, qi fut la femme Fraunceys de Vylers, jaditz Bachiler vostre 
piere, qe vous pleise de vostre grace avoir regard du graunt service 
qe le dit Fraunceys ad fait a vostre dit piere et ed vostre ayel, en la 
Terre Seinte, Gascoigne, Gales, Escoce, Flaundres et en Engleterre, 
et graunter au dit Agneys une garisoun en I'Abbeye de Berkyng, 
c'est assaver une mesoun & la droite de une Noneyme pour la sustin- 
aunce de lui et de sa file a terme de lour vie, en allegaunce de I'alme 
vostre dit piere, qi promist al dit Fraunceys eide pour lui, sa femme et 
ses enfaunz. 

"II semble a conseil q'il est almoigne de lui mander la ou ail- 
lours, s'il plest a Roi," was the reply; so Agnes and her daughter 
might end their days in peace, and Barking be the poorer for 
their appetites^ At Barking the King had the right to claim a 
corrody at each new election of an abbess, as Agnes de Vylers 
doubtless knew; as early as 1253 its Abbess was exempted from 
being charged with conversi and others, because she had granted 
food and vesture for hfe to Philippa de Rading and her daughter 5. 
Other nunneries in the royal patronage were under a similar 
obligation. In 1310 Juliana la Despenser was sent to Romsey, 
to be provided with fitting maintenance for herself and for her 
maid during her lifetime* and in 1319 Mary Ridel was sent to 

' Cal. of Close Rolls (1327-30), p. 393. 

" 1^- P- 523- ' lb. pp. 396, 534- 

' Rot. Pari. II, pp. 381-2. Letters patent were duly sent to Barking 
bidding them admit Agnes, on Nov. 6th, 1331. Cal. of Patent Rolls (1330-3), 
p. 407. 

" V.C.H. Essex, 11, p. 117, 1= Cal. of Close Rolls (1307-13), p. 267. 


Stainfield to be maintained for life^ There were the usual 
attempts to escape from a costly and burdensome obligation; 
Romsey seems to have been successful in repelUng JuUana la 
Despenser, for in the following month the King sent her to 
Shaftesbury, requesting the nuns to " find her for Hfe the neces- 
sities of life according to the requirements of her estate, for 
herself and for the damsel serving her, and to assign her a 
chamber to dwell in, making letters patent of the grant "2. 
Stainfield was less successful in the matter of Mary Ridel; the 
usual plea of poverty was considered insufficient and the convent 
was ordered to receive her, to supply her with food, clothing 
and other necessities and to make letters patent, specifjdng what 
was due to her^. 

Certain convents were in addition handicapped by the obliga- 
tion to make certain grants or hveries, in kind or in money, 
to other monastic houses. The nunneries of St Clement's, York, 
and Moxby seem to have involved themselves — as a condition, 
perhaps, of some past benefaction — in a curious obligation to the 
friars of their districts. At a visitation of the former house in 
1317, Archbishop Melton found that the Friars Minor of York, 
every alternate week of the year, and the Friars Preachers of 
York in the same manner, had for a long time been receiving 
fourteen conventual loaves; the nuns were ordered to show the 
friars the Archbishop's order and to cease from suppljdng the 
loaves as long as their own house was burdened with debt; 
and in no case was the grant to be made without special leave 
from the Archbishop f The next year, on visiting Moxby, Melton 
was obliged to make an injunction as to the bread and ale 
called "levedemete," which the Friars Minor were accustomed 
to receive from the house; if it were owed to them it was to be 
given as due, if not it was not to be given without the will of 
the head^- At Alnwick's first visitation in 1440 the Prioress of 
St Michael's, Stamford, declared that the house was burdened 
with the payment of an annual pension of 60s. to the monastery 
of St Mary's, York, "and that for tithes not worth more than 
forty pence annually; also it is in arrears for twenty years and 

1 Op. cit. (1318-23), p. 117. 

* Op. cit. (1307-13), p. 328. She was the niece of John de London, 
late the King's escheator south of Trent. 

^ Loc. cit. ■' V.C.H. Yorks. iii, p. 129. ^ lb. p. 237. 


more"i. The nuns also had to pay various small sums to Peter- 
borough Abbey, by which they had been founded and to which 
they always remained subordinated^. 

The support of resident corrodians and the payment of 
pensions and liveries were, however, less onerous than the duty 
of providing hospitahty for visitors, which the nunneries per- 
formed as one of their rehgious obligations. Date and Dabitur 
did not always accompany each other. The great folk who held 
the Pope's indult to enter the houses of Minoresses were probably 
generous donors; but the unenclosed orders had to lodge and 
feed less wealthy guests and often enough they found the obliga- 
tion a strain upon their finances. When the nuns of King's 
Mead, Derby, in 1326, petitioned the King to take the house 
into his special protection, they explained that great numbers 
of people came there to be entertained, but that owing to the 
reduction in their revenue they were unable to exercise their 
wonted hospitality ^1 and the number of guests was mentioned 
by the nuns of Heynings in 1401 as one reason for their im- 
poverishment*. At Nunappleton in 1315 the Archbishop of York 
had to forbid two sets of guests to be received at the same time, 
until the house should be relieved of debt ; and at Moxby (which 
was also in debt) he ordained that relatives of the nuns were not 
to visit the house for a longer period than two days ; Nunappleton 
was evidently a favourite resort, for in 1346 another archbishop 
speaks of guests flocking — hospites confluentes — to the priory and 
orders them to be admitted to a hostelry constructed for the 

1 Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 83, The Taxation of Pope Nicholas mentions a 
pension due to the Abbot of York of £^ for the church of Corby, which was 
appropriated to the nuns, and for other tithes elsewhere. The sum of £i 
is occasionally mentioned in the account rolls of St Michael's, Stamford, 
as having been paid to "our Lady of York," or as being still due. 

^ Dugdale, Mon. iv, pp. 256 ff. Payments to the abbot and to other 
officiaries of Peterborough also occur very frequently in the conventual 

' See above, p. 180. Compare the case of St Mary's, Winchester, where 
the nuns complained in 1468 that they were so burdened, that they could 
not fulfil the obligations of their order as to hospitality. V.C.H. Hants. 
II, pp. 123-4. The difficulty of keeping up the accustomed hospitality was 
one of the reasons for annexing Wothorpe to St Michael's, Stamford, after 
the Black Death. Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 268. 

* Cal. of Papal Letters, v, p. 347. Compare Gynewell's injunction in 
1351 : " E vous, Prioresse, chastiez les soers qils ne acuillent mie trop souent 
lour amys en la Priorie, a costage e damage de dit mesoun." Line. Epis. 
Rag. Memo. Gynewell, f, 34^. 


purpose. At Marrick in 1252 it was ordered that guests were 
not to stay for more than one night, because the means of the 
house barely sufficed for the maintenance of the nuns, sisters 
and brethren 1 

Another charge which fell heavily upon the nunneries, some- 
times not entirely by their own fault, was that of litigation. 
This was only an occasional expense, but when it occurred it 
was heavy, and a suit once begun might drag on for years. 
Moreover the incidental expenses in journeys and bribes, which 
all had to be paid out of the current income of a house already 
(perhaps) charged with the payment of tithes and taxes and 
badly in need of repair, were often almost as heavy as the costs 
of the litigation. For instance an account of Christian Bassett, 
Prioress of St Mary de Pre (near St Albans), contains the fol- 
lowing list of expenses incurred by her in the prosecution of a 
law suit in 1487, during the rule of her predecessor Alice Wafer: 

Item when I ryde to London for the suyt that was taken ayenst dame 
Alice Wafer in the commen place, for myself and my preest and a 
woman and ij men, their hyre and hors hyre and mete and drynke, in 
the terme of Ester ye secunde yere of the regne of kyng Henry the 
vij"" XX. s. Item paid aboute the same suyt at Mydsomer tyme, for 
iii] men, a woman and Liij horses xvi s. Item paid for the costs of a 
man to London at Mighelmas terme to Master Lathell, to have know- 
ledge whethix I shuld have nede to come to London or not xij d^. 
Item for the same suyt of Dame Alice Wafer for herself and a suster wt. 
her, ij men, ij horses, in costs at the same time xiiij s. Item for the 
same suyt whan I cam from London to have councell of Master More 
and men of lawe for the same pie x s. Item whan I went to Master 
Fforster to the Welde to speke wt. him, to have councell for the wele 
of the place, for a kercher geven to hym, ij s. Item on other tyme for 
a couple of capons geven to Master Fforster ij s. Item for a man 
rydyng to London at Candilmas to speke wt. Master Lathell and 

> V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, pp. 117, 171, 172, 239. On the subject of abuse of 
monastic hospitality, see Jusserand, English Wayfaring Life, p. 121. Ed- 
ward I forbade anyone to eat or lodge in a religious house, unless the superior 
had invited him or that he were its founder, and even then his consumption 
was to be moderate. 

- Pope Boniface VIII's edict for the stricter enclosure of nuns contained 
a clause warning secular lords against summoning nuns to attend in person 
at the law courts; they were to act through their proctors (see version pro- 
mulgated by Simon of Ghent, Bishop of Salisbury in 1299. Reg. Simonis de 
Gandavo [Cant, and York Soc], p. 11). The heads of the larger houses often 
did act through proctors, but less wealthy convents usually sent the head or 
one of the other nuns in person. See Eckenstein, Woman under Monasticism, 
pp. 362-3. 



Master More and for iiij hennys geven to them and for the costs of 
the same man and his hors iij s. iiij d. Item whan I went to London 
to speke wt. Master Lathell for to renewe our charter of the place 
and other maters of our place xj s. Item in expenses made upon 
Master Ffortescue atte dyvers tymes, whan I wente to hym to have 
his councell for the same suyt in the common place xiij s. iiij d. Item 
paid to a man to ryde to Hertford to speke wt. Norys, that he shuld 
speke to Master Ffortescue for the same pie vifl d. Item in costs for 
a man to go to Barkhamsted to Thomas Cace viij d. Item whan I 
went to Master Ffortescue to his place, for mens hire and hors hire 
for the same mater ij s. Item whan I went to London at an other 
t}mie for the same plee, for iiij men and iiij hors hire xvj s> 
After this one does not wonder that in 15 17 the convent of 
Goring pleaded that owing to lawsuits it was too poor to repair 
its buildings^. 

The account rolls of the Priory of St Michael's, Stamford, 
are full of references to expenses incurred in legal business. On 
one occasion the nuns bought a "bill" in the Marshalsea "to 
have a day of accord" and the roll for 1375-6 contains items 
such as, 

Paid for a purse to the wife of the Seneschal of the Marshalsea xx d. 
Paid for beer bought for the Marshalsea by the Prioress ij s. ij d. Paid 
for capons and chickens for the seneschal of the Marshalsea xxiij d. ob.^ 

Poor Dames Margaret Redynges and Joan Ffychmere " del of&ce 
del tresorie," ending the year £16. 8s. S^d. in debt, must often 
have sighed with Langland 

Lawe is so lordeliche. and loth to make ende, 
Withoute presentz or pens, she pleseth wel fewe. 

Nor was it only the expenses of great lawsuits which bore heavily 
upon the nunneries; a great deal of lesser legal business had to 
be transacted from year to year. The treasuresses' accounts of 
St Michael's, Stamford, contain many notices of such business; 
the expenses of Raulyn at the sessions, expenses of the clerks 
at the Bishop's court or at the last session at Stamford, a suit 

^ Dugdale, Mon. in, p. 360. 

^ V.C.H. Oxon. II, p. 104. Compare a long lawsuit waged by Carrow 
Priory. Rye, Carrow Abbey, App. p. xxi. 

' P.R.O. Mins. A cats. 1260/4. Compare the amusing account of how the 
Prior of Barnwell secured a favourable judgment from the itinerant justices. 
"Ipsis eciam justiciariis dedit herbagium alicui tres acras et alicui quatuor, 
at exennia panis, ceruisie et vini frequenter, in tantum quod in recessu suo 
omnes tam justiciarii quam clerici, seruientes et precones, gracias uberes 
referebant, et ipsi Priori (et) canonicis se et sua obligabant." Liber Memo- 
randonim Ecchsie de Bernewelle, ed. J. Willis Clark (1907), p. 171. 


against a neighbouring parson over tithes, four shilhngs to Henry 
Oundyl for suing out writs; and innumerable entries concerning 
the inevitable "presentz or pens," a douceur to the Bishop's 
clerk, a courtesy to the king's escheator, a present to the clerks 
at the sessions, a gift "to divers men of law for their help on 
divers occasions." All nunneries had constantly to meet such 
petty expenses as these; and if we add an occasional suit on a 
larger scale the total amount of money devoured by the Law 
is considerable. 

So far mention has been made only of such reasons for their 
poverty as cannot be considered the fault of the nuns. The 
inclemency of nature, the rapacity of lay and ecclesiastical 
authorities and the law's delays could not be escaped, however 
wisely a Prioress husbanded her resources. Nevertheless it can- 
not be doubted that the nuns themselves, by bad management, 
contributed largely to their own misfortunes. Bad administra- 
tion, sometimes wilful, but far more often due to sheer incom- 
petence, was constantly given as a reason for undue poverty. 
It was "negligence and bad administration " which nearly caused 
the dispersion of the nuns of Wintney during the famine year 
of 1316I; and those of Hampole in 1353^. At Davington in 1511 
one of the nuns deposed that "the rents and revenues of the 
house decrease owing to the guilt of the officers"^. The fault was 
often with the head of the house, who loved to keep in her own 
hands the disposal of the convent's income, omitted to consult 
the chapter in her negotiations, retained the common seal and 
did not render accounts. An illustration of the straits to which a 
house might be reduced by the bad management of its superior is 
provided by the history of Mailing Abbey in the early part of 
the fourteenth century, as told by William de Dene in his 
Historia Roffensis. In 1321 an abbess had been deposed, os- 
tensibly on the complaint of her nuns and because the place 
had been ruined by her; but too much importance must not be 
assigned to the charge, for she was a sister of Bartholomew de 
Badlesmere, at that time a leader of the baronial party against 

1 V.C.H. Hants, n, p. 150. 

2 V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, -p. 164. The " misrule of past presidents" is mentioned 
as a contributory cause of distress at Lilleshall (1351), St Mary's Winchester 
(1364) and Tarrant {1366). Cal. Pat. Rolls, 1351, p. 177; 1364, p. 485; 
1366, p. 239. ^ E.H.R. VI, p. 28. 


Edward II, and it was by the King's command that Hamo 
Hythe, Bishop of Rochester, visited MalUng and deprived he: 
her deposition was probably a pohtical move. The same canr 
however be said of Lora de Retlyng, who became abbess in 132 
"The Bishop," says William de Dene, "although unwilling, knowi 
her to be insufficient and ignorant, set Lora de Retlyng in comma 
as abbess, a woman who lacked all the capacity and wisdom oj 
leader and ruler, the nuns enthusiastically applauding; and the nc 
day he blessed her, which benediction was rather a malediction : 
the convent. Then the Bishop forbade the Abbess to give a corro 
to her maid-servant, as it had been the ill custom to do, and he 1 
questrated the common seal, forbidding it to be used, save when J 
licence had been asked and obtained^. 

Twenty-five years passed and in 1349 the chronicler writes: 

The Bishop of Rochester visited the abbeys of Lesnes and Mallii 
and he found them so ruined by longstanding mismanagement, th 
it is thought they never can recover so long as this world lasts, ev 
to the day of judgment^. 

Malhng had suffered severely from the Black Death in t 
previous year, but our knowledge of the character of Lora 
Retlyng and the plain statement of William de Dene (" destruc 
per malam diutinam custodiam ") , make it clear that bad manag 
ment and not the pestilence was to blame for its poverty*. 

Financial mismanagement was, indeed, the most frequent 
all charges brought against superiors at the episcopal visitatioi 
When Alnwick visited his diocese of Lincoln several cases 
such incompetence came to light. At St Michael's, Stamfo 
(1440), it was found that the Prioress had never rendered ; 
account during the whole of her term of ofhce, and one of t 
nuns declared that she did not rule and supervise tempoi 
affairs to the benefit of the house; two years later the Bishi 
visited the convent again and the Prioress herself pleaded bodi 
weakness, adding 

that since she was impotent to rule the temporalities, nor had th 
any industrious man to supervise these and to raise and receive t 
produce of the house, and since the rents of the house remained r 
paid in the hands of the tenants, she begged that two nuns might 
deputed to rule the temporalities, and to be responsible for receij 
and payments. 

' Wharton, Anglia Sacra, i, p. 362. ' lb. i, p. 364. ' lb. i, p. 3 

' Gasquet, however, mistakenly attributes its state entirely to the plag 
The Great Pestilence, p. 106. 


In 1445, however, one of the appointed treasuresses, Ahce de 
Wyteryng, admitted that she neither wrote down nor accounted 
for anything concerning her administration, and another nun 
complained that, if Wyteryng were to die, it would be impossible 
for any of them to say in what state their finances stood*- At 
the poor and heavily indebted house of Legbourne (1440) the 
Prioress, unknown to the Bishop, but with the consent of the 
Convent, had sold a corrody to the bailiff of the house, Robert 
Warde, who was nevertheless not considered useful to the house 
in this post ; the tenements and leasehold houses belonging to the 
house were ruinous and like to fall through the carelessness of 
the Prioress and baiUff, and one aggrieved nun stated that "the 
prioress is not circumspect in ruling the temporalities and cares 
not whether they prosper, but applies all the common goods 
of the house to her own uses, as though they were her own^." 
At Godstow also it was complained that the steward had an 
annual fee of ten marks from the house and was useless^. At 
Heynings (1440) the Prioress was charged with never rendering 
accounts and with cutting down timber unnecessarily, but she 
denied the last charge and said she had done so only for necessary 
reasons and with the express consent of the convent*. At Nun- 
coton corrodies had been sold and bondmen alienated without 
the knowledge of the nuns^- At Harrold it was found that no 
accounts were rendered, that a corrody had been sold for twenty 
marks, and that when the Prioress bought anything for the 
convent, no talUes or indentures were made between the con- 
tracting parties, so that after a time the sellers came and de- 
manded double the price agreed upon ; one nun also asked that 
the Bishop should prevent the selling or ahenation of woods ^ 
At Langley (which was miserably poor) there was a similar com- 
plaint of the sale of timber'. These are the less serious cases 
of financial mismanagement; the cases of Gracedieu, Ankerwyke 
and Catesby have already been considered. Sometimes the ex- 
travagance or incompetence of a Prioress became so notorious 
£is to necessitate her suspension or removal; as at Basedale in 
13078, Rosedale in 1310', Hampole in 1353*", Easebourne in 

1 Alnwick's Visit. MS. ff. 39^, 83, 96. - Line. Visit. 11, p. 185. 

' lb. II, p. 114. ' lb. II, p. 133. ^ Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 72. 

« Line. Visit. 11, pp. 130, 131. ' lb. 11, p. 175. 

8 V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 159- ' lb. p. 174. " lb. p. 164. 


1441I and St Mary de Pre at the end of the fifteenth century 2. 
But more frequently the bishops endeavoured to hem in expendi- 
ture by elaborate safeguards, which will be described below. 

Besides cases of incompetence and cases of misappropriation 
of revenues by an unscrupulous prioress, the mismanagement 
of the nuns may usually be traced to a desperate desire to 
obtain ready money. One means by which they sought to aug- 
ment their income was by the sale of corrodies in return for a 
lump sum^. A man (or woman) would pay down a certain sum 
of money, and in return the convent would engage to keep him 
in board and lodging for the rest of his natural life; at Arden 
for instance, in 1524, Alice widow of William Berre paid twelve 

^ Sussex Archaeol. Coll. ix, p. 7. 

^ Dugdale, Mon. iii, p. 353. 

' It must be understood that the judicious sale of corrodies was not 
necessarily harmful to a house. Sometimes it might lead to the acquisition 
of land or rents at comparatively little expense to the convent, as a glance 
at some of the charters in the English Register of Godstow Abbey will show. 
See Eng. Reg. of Godstow Abbey (E.E.T.S.), pp. xxvii-xxviii. The convent 
probably drove a good bargain when in 1230 the harassed Stephen, son of 
Waryn the miller of Oxford, conveyed all his Oxford property to Godstow 
"and for this graunte, & cetera, the forsaid mynchons yaf to them to ther 
grete nede, that is to sey, to aquyte hym of the Jewry and otherwise where 
he was endited, X markes of siluer in warison. And furthermore they 
graunted to hym and to hys wyf molde, with ther seruant to serve them 
while they lived, two corrodies of ij mynchons and a corrodye of one seruant 
to their systeynynge" (op. cit. p. 392). Nor was there much harm in grants 
for a term of years, such as the grant of board and lodging made by the 
convent of Nunappleton in 1301 to Richard de Fauconberg, in return for 
certain lands bringing in an annual rent of two marks of silver, both the 
corrody and the tenure of these lands being for a term of twelve years. 
Dugdale, Mon. v, p. 653. Sometimes, again, corrodies were granted in return 
for specified services; in 1270 Richard Grene of Cassington surrendered 
5i acres of arable and 2 roods of meadow land to Godstow in return for " the 
seruyce under the porter for ever at the yate of Godestowe and j half mark 
in the name of his wagis yerely. " Eng. Reg. of Godstow, p. 305. AtYedingham 
in 1352 an interesting grant of a corrodiuni moniale was made to one Emma 
Hart, who, in return for a sum of money, was given the position of deye 
or dairy woman; she was to have the same food-allowance as a nun and a 
share in all their small pittances, and a building called " le chesehouse" 
with a solar and cellar to inhabit and was allowed to keep ten sheep and ten 
ewes at the convent's charge. In return she was to do the dairy-work and 
when too old to work any longer the convent engaged to grant her a place 
in "le sisterhouse." V.C.H. Yorks. iii, p. 128. Sometimes also corrodies 
were granted by way of pensioning ofi old servants, as when, in 1529, the 
nuns of Arden granted one to their chaplain "for the gud and diligent 
seruice yt oure wellbeloued sir Thomas parkynson, preste, hav done to vs 
in tyme paste." V.C.H. Yorks. iii, p. 115. To corrodies such as these there 
was little objection (though the last might lead to financial loss) . The danger 
came from life-grants in return for an inadequate sum of ready money. 


pounds and was granted "mett and drynke as their convent 
hath" at their common table, or when sick in her own room, 
and " on honest chamber with sufficient fyer att all tyme, with 
sufficient apperell as shalbe nedful"i. Obviously, however, such 
an arrangement could only be profitable to the nuns, if the grantee 
died before the original sum had been expended in boarding 
her. The convent, in fact, acted as a kind of insurance agency 
and the whole arrangement was simply a gamble in the life of 
the corrodian. The temptation to extricate themselves from 
present difficulties by means of such gambles, was one which 
the nuns could never resist. They would lightly make their grant 
of board and lodging for Ufe and take the badly needed money; 
but it would be swallowed up only too soon by their creditors 
and often vanish Uke fairy gold in a year. Not so the corrodian. 
Long-lived as Methusaleh and lusty of appetite, she appeared 
year after year at their common table, year after year consumed 
their food, wore their apparel, warmed herself with their firewood. 
Alice Berre was still hale and hearty after twelve years, when the 
commissioners came to Arden and would doubtless have lasted 
for several more to come, if his Majesty's quarrel with Rome 
had not swept her and her harassed hostesses alike out of their 
ancient home ; but she must long before have eaten through her 
original twelve pounds 2. There is an amusing complaint in the 
Register of Crabhouse; early in the fourteenth century Aleyn 
Brid and his wife persuaded the nuns to buy their lands for a 
sum down and a corrody for their joint and separate lands. But 
the lands turned out barren and the corrodians went on Uving 
and doubtless chuckling over their bargain, and "si cher terre 
de cy petit value unkes ne fut achate," wrote the exasperated 
chronicler of the house^. Bishop Alnwick found two striking 
instances of a bad gamble during his visitations in 1440-1 ; at 
Langley the late Prioress had sold a corrody to a certain John 
Fraunceys and his wife for the paltry sum of twenty marks, and 
they had already held it for six years*; worse still, at Nuncoton 
there were two corrodians, each of whom had originally paid 

1 V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 115. 

^ She received 68s. ^.d. in part payment for the commutation of the 

' Jessopp, Frivola, pp. 55-6. 
' Line. Visit. 11, p. 175. 


twenty marks, and they had been there for twelve and for twenty 
years respectively^- 

In the face of cases Hke these it is difficult not to suspect that 
unscrupulous persons took advantage of the temporary diffi- 
culties of the nuns and of their lack of business acumen. There 
is comedy, though not for the unhappy Convent, in the history 
of a corrody which, in 1526, was said to have been granted by 
Thetford to "a certain Foster." Six years later there was a 
great to-do at the visitation. The nuns declared that John 
Bixley of Thetford, "bocher," had sold his corrody in the house 
to Thomas Foster, gentleman, who was nourishing a large house- 
hold on that pretext, to wit six persons, himself, his wife, three 
children and a maid ; but Bixley said that he had never sold his 
corrody and there in pubUc displayed his indenture. What 
happened we do not know; Thomas Foster, gentleman, must be 
the same man who had a corrody in 1526, and how John Bixley 
came into it is not clear. It looks as though the Convent (which 
was so poor that the Bishop had dissolved his visitation there 
some years previously) was trying by fair means or foul to get 
rid of Thomas Foster and his family; doubtless they had not 
bargained for a wife, three children and a maid when they rashly 
granted him one poor corrody^. It is easy to understand why 
medieval bishops, at nearly every visitation, forbade the granting 
of fees, corrodies or pensions for life or without episcopal consent ; 
"forasmoche as the graunting of corrody es and lyveryes hath 
bene chargious, bardynouse and greuouse unto your monastery" 
wrote Longland to Studley in 1531 : 

As itt apperithe by the graunte made to Agnes Mosse, Janet bynbrok, 
Elizabeth todde and other whiche has right soore hyndrede your place, 
In consideracon therof I charge you lady priores upon payne of 
contempte and of the lawe, that ye give noo moo like graunts, 
and that ye joutt away Elizabeth Todde her seruant...and that 

• Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. yid. 

^ Visit, of the Diocese 0} Norwich (Camden Soc), pp. 243, 303-4. There 
is in the Record Office a petition to the Chancellor irom Richard Englyssh 
and Marjorie his wife, setting out that the Bishop of Rochester had granted 
Marjorie for life a corrody in Mailing Abbey of seven loaves and four gallons 
of convent ale and three pence for cooked food weekly, which corrody she 
and her husband had held for some time, but that now the abbess and con- 
vent withheld it. Evidently it was a burden to the house, but it is not clear 
whether the bishop had forced a corrodian on the nuns, or had merely 
confirmed a grant by them. P.R.O. Early Chanc. Proc. 4/196. 


Elizabeth Todde haue noo kowe going nor other bestes within any 
of your grounds'; 

and Dean Kentwood, visiting St Helen's Bishopsgate in 1432 
found that "diverce fees perpetuelle, corrodies and lyuers have 
been grauntyd befor this tyme to diverce officers of your house 
and other persones, which have hurt the house and be cause of 
delapidacyone of the godys of youre seyde house "2. Even the 
nuns themselves sometimes realised that the sale of corrodies 
had brought them no good ; they often complained at visitations 
that the Prioress had made such grants without consulting 
them; and the convent of Heynings gave "the multiplication 
of divers men who have acquired corrodies in their house," as 
one reason for their extreme poverty, when they petitioned for 
the appropriation of the church of Womersley^. 

The nuns were wont to have recourse to other equally im- 
provident expedients for obtaining money without regard to 
future embarrassment. They farmed their churches and aUenated 
their lands and granges or let them out on long leases. These 
practices were constantly forbidden in episcopal injunctions*; at 
the visitation of Easebourne in 1524 the Prioress, Dame Margaret 
Sackfelde, being questioned as to what grants they had made 
under their convent seal, said that they had made four, to wit, 
one to WilUam Salter to farm the rectory there, another of the 
proceeds of the chapel of Famhurst, another of the proceeds 
of the chapel of Midhurst and another to William Toty for his 
corrody; this was corroborated by the subprioress, who also 
mentioned a grant of the proceeds of the church of Easebourne 
to a rather disreputable person called Ralph Pratt; and this is 
only a typical case ^. The nunnery of Wix was reduced to such 
penury in 1283 on account of various alienations that Pope 
Martin IV granted the nuns a bull declaring all such grants void : 

It has come to our ears that our beloved daughters in Christ, the 
Prioress and convent of the monastery of Wix (who are under the 

1 Archaeologia, XLVii, p. 58. 

* Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 554. He had once before ordered the holders of 
corrodies there to display their grants, that it might be known whether they 
had fulfilled the services due from them. V.C.H. London, 1, p. 459. 

' The appropriation was confirmed by the Pope in 1401. Cal. of Papal 
Letters, v, p. 347. In 1440 Bishop Alnwick made an injunction at Heynings 
against the granting of corrodies. Line. Visit, n, p. 135. 

* See below, pp. 225-6. ' Sussex Archaeol. Coll. ix, p. 25. 

P.N. 14 


rule of a prioress) , of the order of St Benedict, in the diocese of London, 
as well as their predecessors, have conceded tithes, rents, lands, 
houses, vineyards, meadows, pastures, woods, mUls, rights, juris- 
dictions and certain other goods belonging to the said monastery to 
several clerks and laymen, to some of them for life, to some for no 
short time, to others in perpetuity at farm or under an annual pay- 
ment, and have to this effect given letters, taken oaths, made re- 
nunciations, and drawn up public instruments, to the grave harm of 
the said monastery; and some of the grantees are said to have sought 
confirmatory letters in common form, concerning these grants, from 
the apostohc see^. 

This comprehensive catalogue gives some indication of the losses 
which a house would suffer from reckless grants. The sale of 
timber and the alienation or pawning of plate were other ex- 
pedients to which the nuns constantly resorted and which were 
as constantly prohibited by the bishops 2. The Prioress of Nun- 
monkton in 1397, "alienated timber in large quantities to the 
value of a hundred marks"'; the cutting down of woods was 
charged against the Prioresses of Heynings, Harrold, Langley, 
Gracedieu, Catesby and Ankerwyke at Alnwick's visitations; at 
Langley it was moreover found that the woods were not properly 
fenced in after the trees were felled and so the tree-stumps were 
damaged*; the necessity for raising the money was sometimes 
specifically pleaded, as at Markyate, where a small wood had 
been sold "to satisfy the creditors of the house "5. These sales 
of timber were a favourite means of obtaining ready money; 
but too often the loss to the house by the destruction of its woods 
far outweighed the temporary gain and the Abbeys of St Mary's 
Winchester and Romsey made special mention of this cause 
of impoverishment in the middle of the fourteenth century^. 
The alienation or pawning of plate and jocalia was often re- 
sorted to in an extremity. At Gracedieu in 144 1 the jewels of 
the house had been pawned without the knowledge of the 
convent, so that the nuns (as one of them complained) had not 
one bowl from which to drink '; the next year it was asserted that 

1 Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 516. 

" See below, pp. 225-6. ' Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 194. 

^ Line. Visit. 11, p. 175. ' Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 6. 

' Liveing, op. cit. p. 146; Cal. of Papal Petitions, i, p. 122. At Studley 
in 1530 it was found that the woods of the priory had been much diminished 
by the late prioress and by "Thomas Cardinal of York for the construction 
of his college in the university of Oxford." V.C.H. Oxon. 11, p. 78. 

' Line. Visit. 11, p. 120. 


the Prioress of Catesby "pawned the jewels of the house for ten 
years, to wit one cup for the sacrament, which still remained 
in pawn , and also other pieces of silver " i. When Bishop Longland 
visited Nuncoton in 153 1 he found that the Prioress had in 
times past sold various goods belonging to her house, "viz. a 
bolle ungilte playn with a couer, oon nutt gilte with a couer, 
ij boUes white without couers, oon Agnus of gold, oon bocle of 
gold, oon chalice, oon maser and many other things "2; and in 
1436 it was ordered that the chalices, jewels and ornaments of 
St Mary's Neasham, which were then in the hands of sundry 
creditors, were to be redeemed^. In the case of Sinningthwaite 
in 1534 the convent was in such a reduced state that Archbishop 
Lee was actually obliged to give the nuns licence to pledge 
jewels to the value of £15*. The charge of pawning or selling 
jewels for their own purposes was often made against prioresses 
whose conduct in other ways was bad; for instance against 
Eleanor of Arden in 1396*, Juhana of Bromhale in 1404^, Agnes 
Tawke of Easebourne in 1478' and Katherine Wells of Little- 
more in 1517*. 

To financial incompetence and to the employment of im- 
provident methods of raising money, the nuns occasionally 
added extravagance. The bishops forbade them to wear gay 
clothes for reasons unconnected with finance ; nevertheless their 
silks and furs must have cost money which could ill be spared, 
and it is amusing to notice that even at Studley, Rothwell and 
Langley, which were among the smallest and poorest houses in 
the diocese of Lincoln and in debt, the nuns had to confess to 
silken veils. The maintenance of a greater number of servants 
than the revenues of the house could support was another not 
uncommon form of extravagance'. Instances of luxurious living 
on the part of the heads of various houses have been given else- 
whereiO; it need only be remarked that a self-indulgent prioress 
might cripple the resources of a house for many years to come, 
whether by spending its revenues too lavishly, or by raising 
money by the alienation of its goods. 

^ Line. Visit. 11, p. 147. - Archaeologia, XLVil, pp. 58-9. 

' V.C.H. Durham, 11, p. 107. •■ V.C.H. Yorks. iii, p. 177. 

5 Test. Ebor. i, pp. 283-4. * Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 506, note 6. 

' Sussex Arch. Coll. ix. p. 19. ' V.C.H. Oxon. 11, p, 76. 

» See above, p. 153. " See Ch. iv. 

14 — 3 


One other cause of the poverty of nunneries must be noticed, 
before turning to the attempts of bishops and other visitors to 
find a remedy. Overcrowding was, throughout the earUer period 
under consideration, a common cause of financial distress; and 
the admission of a greater number of nuns than the revenues 
of the convent were able to support was constantly forbidden 
in episcopal injunctions. Certainly this was not invariably the 
fault of the nuns. They suffered (as we have seen) from the 
formal right of bishop or of patron to place a nun in their house 
on special occasions, and they suffered still more from the con- 
stant pressure to which they were subjected by private persons, 
anxious to obtain comfortable provision for daughters and nieces. 
It was sometimes impossible and always difficult to resist the 
importunity of influential gentlemen in the neighbourhood, whose 
ill-will might be a serious thing, whether it showed itself in open 
violence or in closed purses. The authorities of the church had 
sometimes to step in and rescue houses which had thus been 
persuaded to burden themselves beyond their means. In 1273 
Gregory X issued a bull to the Priory of Carrow, with the inten- 
tion of putting a stop to the practice. 

Your petition having been expounded to us, containing a complaint 
that you have, at the instant requests of certain lords of England, 
whom you are unable to resist on account of their power, received 
so many nuns already into your monastery, that you may scarce be 
fitly sustained by its rents, we therefore, by the authority of these 
present letters, forbid you henceforth to receive any nun or sister to 
the burden of your house'. 

Some nine years later Archbishop Wickwane wrote in the same 
strain to the nuns of Nunkeeling and Wilberfoss: 

Because we have learned from public rumour that your monastery 
is sometimes burdened by the reception of nuns and by the visits of 
secular women and girls, at the instance of great persons, to whom you 
foolishly and unlawfully grant easy permission, we order you... hence- 
forward, to receive no one as nun or sister of your house, or to lodge 
for a time in your monastery, without our special Ucence^. 

Bishop Stratford, in his visitation of Romsey in 1311, forbade 
additions to the nuns, the proper number having been exceeded, 
and again in 1327 he wrote : 

1 Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 71. 

' Reg. of Archbishop William Wickwane (Surtees Soc), p. 113. 


It is notorious tliat your house is burdened with ladies beyond the 
estabUshed number which used to be kept ; and I have heard that you 
are being pressed to receive more young ladies (datnoyseles) as nuns, 
wherefore I order you strictly that no young lady received by you 
be veiled, nor any other received, until the Bishop's visitation, or 
until they have special orders from him'. 

The situation at the great Abbey of Shaftesbury was the same. 
As early as 1218 the Pope had forbidden the community to 
admit nuns beyond the number of a hundred because they were 
unable to support more or to give alms to the poor; in 1322 
Bishop Mortival wrote remonstrating with them for their neglect 
of the Pope's order and repeating the prohibition to admit more 
nuns until the state of the Abbey was relieved, on the ground 
that the inmates of the house were far too many for its goods 
to support ; and in 1326 (in response to a petition from the Abbess 
asking him to fix the statutory number) the Bishop issued an 
order stating that the house was capable of maintaining a 
hundred and twenty nuns and no more and that no novices 
were to be received until the community was reduced to that 

Episcopal prohibitions to receive new inmates without special 
licence were very common, especially in the late thirteenth and 
early fourteenth centuries. Bishops realised that overcrowding 
only increased the growing poverty of the nunneries. In the 
poor diocese of York, between 1250 and 1320, the nuns were over 
and over again forbidden to receive nuns, lay sisters or lay 
brothers without the licence of the Archbishop. Injunctions to 
this effect were issued to Marrick (1252), Swine (1268), Wilber- 
foss (1282), Nunappleton (1282, 1290, 1346), Hampole (1267, 
1308, 1312), Arden (1306), Thicket (1309, 1314), Nunkeeling 
(1282, 1314), Nunburnholme (1318), Esholt (1318), Arthington 

1 Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, p. 98. Similarly Bishop Edyndon 
wrote in 1346 and again in 1363 to St Mary's Winchester, Wherwell and 
Romsey, forbidding them to take a greater number of nuns than was 
anciently accustomed or than could be sustained by them without penury. 
lb. p. 165. 

» V.C.H. Dorset, 11, p, 77. Nevertheless at Romsey and at Shaftesbury 
the King and the Bishop himself continued to " dump " nuns, in accordance 
with their prerogative right, throughout the career of both houses. In the 
six years following this prohibition of 1326 Bishop Stratford not only gave 
permission for a novice to be received at the nuns' own request, but deposited 
no less than three there himself. The words and the actions of bishops 
sometimes tallied ill. 


(1318) and Sinningthwaite (1319)1 At Swine, after the visita- 
tion by Archbishop Walter Giffard in 1267-8, it was noted 
among the comperta 

that the house of Swine cannot sustain more nuns or sisters than now 
are there, inasmuch as those at present there are ill provided with 
food, as is said above, and that the house nevertheless remains at 
least a hundred and forty marks in debt; wherefore the lord Arch- 
bishop decreed that no nun or sister should thenceforward be received 
there, save with his consent^. 

A very severe punishment was decreed at Marrick, where the 
Archbishop announced that any man or woman admitted with- 
out his licence would be expelled without hope of mercy, the 
Prioress would be deposed and any other nuns who agreed 
condemned to fast on bread and water for two months (except 
on Sundays and festivals)^. In other dioceses the bishops pur- 
sued a similar policy. But it was not easy to enforce these 
prohibitions. Four years after Archbishop Greenfield's injunc- 
tion to Hampole (1308) he was obliged to address another letter 
to the convent, having heard that the prioress had received 

a httle girl (piiellulam) , by name Maud de Dreffield, niece of the Abbot 
of Roche, and another named Jonetta, her own niece, at the instance 
of Sir Hugh de Cressy, her brother, that after a time they might be 
admitted to the habit and profession of nuns*. 

The predicament of the Prioress is easily understood ; how was 
she to refuse her noble brother and the Abbot of Roche? They 
could bring to bear far more pressure than a distant archbishop, 
who came upon his visitations at long intervals. Moreover the 
ever present need of ready money made the resistance of nuns 
less determined than it might otherwise have been ; for a dowry 
in hand they were, as usual, wilhng to encumber themselves 
with a new mouth to feed throughout long years to come. 

Prohibitions from increasing the number of nuns become more 
rare in the second half of the fourteenth and during the fifteenth 
century. Even when the population recovered from the havoc 

1 See V.C.H Yorks. ni, pp. 113, 117, 119, 120, 124, 161, 163, 171-2, 188; 
Reg. of Archbishop Giffard (Surtees Soc), p. 148; Reg. of Archbishop Wick- 
wane (Surtees Soc), pp. 112, 113, 140-1. 

^ Reg. Giffard, loc. cit. ^ V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 117. 

* lb. in, p. 163. The house was heavily in debt at the time and though 
the Bishop had forbidden the granting of corrodies and Uveries without 
leave, the Prioress was also charged with having "sold or granted corrodies 
very burdensome to the house." 


wrought by the Black Death, the numbers in the nunneries con- 
tinued steadily to decline. Perhaps fashion had veered, con- 
scious that the golden days of monasticism were over; more 
hkely the growing poverty of the houses rendered them a less 
tempting retreat. A need for restricting the number of nuns 
still continued, because the decline in the revenues of the nun- 
neries was swifter than the dechne in the number of the nuns. 
Thus in 1440-1 Alnwick included in his injunctions to seven 
houses a prohibition to receive more nuns than could competently 
be sustained by their revenuesi, and the evidence given at his 
visitations shows the necessity for such a restriction. The injunc- 
tion to Heynings is particularly interesting: 

For as mykelle as we fonde that agayn the entente and the forbedyng 
of the commune lawe there are in your saide pryorye meo nunnes and 
susters professed then may be competently susteyned of the revenews 
of your sayde pryorye, the exilitee of the saide revenews and charitees 
duly considered, we commaunde, ordeyn, charge and enioyne yowe 
vnder payne etc. etc. that fro this day forthe ye receyve no mo in to 
nunnes ne sustres in your saide pryory wyth owte the advyse and 
assent of hus (and) of our successours bysshope of Lincolne, so that 
we or thai, wele informed of the yerely valwe of your saide revenews 
may ordeyn for the nombre competente of nunnes and susters^. 

Nevertheless even at Nuncoton, one of the houses to which a 
similar injunction was sent, a nun gave evidence "that in her 
oun time there were in the habit eighteen or twenty nuns and 
now there are only fourteen," and the Bishop himself remarked 
that "ther be but fewe in couent in regarde of tymes here to ■ 
fore "3. Everywhere this decline in the number of nuns went 
steadily on during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries*. 
And from the beginning of the fifteenth century there appear, 
here and there among visitatorial injunctions, commands of a 

^ Heynings, Ankerwyke, Legboume, Nuncoton, St Michael's Stamford, 
Gracedieu, Langley. 

- Line. Visit. 11, p. 134. ^ Alnwick's Visit. MS. ff. Jid., Tjd. 

* It would be interesting to collect statistics as to the relative size of 
different nunneries at different periods. It is here possible to give only a 
few examples of the decline in the number of inmates. The numbers at 
Nuneaton varied as follows: 93 (1234), 80 (1328), 46 (1370), 40 (1459), 
23(1539). (F.C.i/. T'Fai'mcA. II, pp. 66-9.) At Romsey (where the statutory 
number was supposed to be 100) as follows: 91 (1333) and 26 (from 1478 to 
the Dissolution). (Liveing, Records oj Romsey Abbey, passim.) At Shaftes- 
bury as follows: forbidden to receive more than 100 in 1218 and in 1322; 
number fixed at 120 in 1326; between 50-57 (from 1441 to the Dissolution). 
V.C.H. Dorset, 11, p. 77. 


very different nature; here and there a Bishop is found trying, 
not to keep down, but to keep up the number of nuns. Instead 
of the repeated prohibitions addressed to Romsey at the beginning 
of the fourteenth century, there is an injunction from Wilham 
of Wykeham in 1387, ordering the Abbess to augment the number 
of nuns, which had fallen far below the statutory number^. 
Similarly in 1432 Bishop Gray wrote to Elstow, 

since the accustomed number of nuns of the said monastery has so 
lessened, that those who are now received scarcely suffice for the 
chanting of divine service by night and day according to the require- 
ment of the rule, we will and enjoin upon you the abbess, in virtue 
of obedience and under the penalties written above and beneath, that, 
with what speed you can, you cause the number of nuns in the said 
monastery to be increased in proportion to its resources ^. 

At Studley in 1531, although the house was badly in debt, the 
nuns were ordered to live less luxuriously and " to augment your 
nombre of ladyes within the yere"^. In this connection Arch- 
bishop Warham's visitation of Sheppey in 15 n is significant. 
The Prioress, when questioned as to the number of nuns in 
the house, said that "she had heard there were seventeen; she 
knew of fourteen; she herself wished to increase the number to 
fourteen if she could find any who wished to enter into religion "*. 
It is an interesting reflection that Henry VIII may simply have 
accelerated, by his violent measure, a gradual dissolution of the 
nunneries through poverty and through change of fashion. 

This account of the attempts of medieval bishops to prevent 
the nunneries from burdening themselves with inmates, beyond 
the number which could be supported by their revenues, leads 
to a consideration of the other methods employed by them to 
remedy the financial distress in which the nuns so often found 
themselves. These methods may be divided into three classes; 
(i) arrangements to safeguard expenditure by the head of the 
house and to impose a check upon autocracy, (2) arrangements to 
prevent rash expenditure or improvident means of raising money, 
by requiring episcopal consent before certain steps could be 

1 New Coll. MS. f. 55^. - Line. Visit, i, p. 53. 

' Archaeologia, xlvii, p. 55. 

* E.H.R. VI, pp. 33-4. From the fact that the Prioress was ordered to 
make up the number again to fourteen, as soon as she conveniently could, it 
appears that the ten nuns who gave evidence before the Archbishop repre- 
sented the full strength of the house. 


taken, and (3) if the incompetence of the nuns were such that 
even these restrictions were insufficient, the appointment of a 
male custos, master or guardian, to manage the finances of the 

Arrangements for safeguarding expenditure by the head of 
the house were of four kinds: (i) provision for the consultation 
of the whole convent in important negotiations, (2) provision 
for the safe custody of the common seal, (3) provision for the 
regular presentation of accounts, and (4) the appointment of co- 
adjutresses to the Prioress, or of two or three treasuresses, to 
be jointly responsible for receipts and expenditure. It was a 
common injunction that the whole convent, or at least "the 
more and sounder part of it," should be consulted in all important 
negotiations, such as the alienation of property, the leasing of 
land and farms, the cutting down of woods, the incurring of 
debts and the reception of novices '^. It has already been shown 
that Prioresses acted autocratically in performing such business 
on their own initiative, and the injunction sent by Peckham to 
the Abbess of Romsey shows the lengths to which this in- 
dependence might lead them^. Flemyng's injunction to Elstow 
in 142 1-2 is typical: 

That the Abbess deliver not nor demise to farm appropriated churches, 
pensions, portions, manors or granges belonging to the monastery, 
nor do any other such weighty business, without the express consent 
of the greater and sounder part of the convent^ 

At Arthington in 13 18 the Prioress was specially ordered to 
consult the convent in sales of wool and other business matters*; 
the Prioress of Sinningthwaite the next year was told to take 
counsel with the older nuns and in all writings under the common 
seal to employ a faithful clerk and to have the deed read, dis- 
cussed and sealed in the presence of the whole convent, those 
who spoke against it on reasonable grounds being heard and 
the deed if necessary corrected^. Provision for the safe custody 

' A few out of many specific instances may be given; Wroxall 1323 
{V.C.H. Warwick. 11, p. 71) ; Polesworth 1456 {ib. p. 63) ; Fairwell 1367 {Reg. 
of Bishop Stretton, p. 119); Romsey 1302 (Reg. Johannis de Pontissara 
(Cant, and York. Soc. p. 127); Moxby 1318 (V.C.H. Yorks. ni, p. 239); 
Nuncoton 1531 (Arch. XLVii, p. 58); Sinningthwaite 1534 (Yorks. Arch. 
Journ. XVI, p. 441). 

2 See above, pp. 64-5. ' Line. Visit, i, p. 50. 

* V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 188. * Ib. in, p. 177. 


of the common seal, and for the assent of the whole convent 
to all writings which received its imprint, was a necessary 
corollary to the demand that the Prioress should consult her 
nuns in matters of business. Medieval superiors were constantly 
charged with keeping the common seal in their own custody^ 
and nuns and bishops ahke objected to a custom which rendered 
the convent responsible for any rash agreement into which the 
Prioress might enter. Elaborate arrangements for the custody 
of the seal are therefore common in visitatorial injunctions. In 
1302 Bishop John of Pontoise wrote to Romsey that 

whereas from the bad keeping of the common seal many evils to the 
house have hitherto happened (as the Bishop has now learned from 
the experience of fact), and also may happen unless wholesome remedy 
be appUed, three at least of the discreeter ladies shall be appointed 
by the Abbess and by the larger and wiser part of the convent to keep 
the seal; and when any letter shall be sealed with the common seal 
in the chapter before the whole convent, it shall be read and explained 
in an intelligible tongue to all the ladies, publicly, distinctly and 
openly and afterwards sealed in the same chapter, (not in corners or 
secreth', as has hitherto been the custom,) and signed as it is read, so 
that what concerns all may be approved by all. Which done the 
seal shall be replaced in the same place under the said custody^. 

These injunctions were repeated by Bishop Woodlock nine years 
later, but in 1387 WilHam of Wykeham laid down much more 
stringent rules. The seal was to be kept securely under seven, 
or at least five locks and keys, of which one key was to be in 
the custody of the abbess and the others to remain with some 
of the more prudent and mature nuns, nominated by the con- 
vent; no letter was to be sealed without first being read before 
the whole convent in the vulgar tongue and approved by all 
or by the greater and wiser part of the nuns 3. Seven locks 
was an unusually large number; usually three, or even two, were 
ordered. At Mailing, where, as we have seen. Bishop Hamo of 
Hythe unwillingly confirmed an "insufficient and ignorant" 
woman as Abbess, he took the extreme step of sequestrating 
the common seal and forbidding it to be used without his per- 
mission *. 

1 E.g. Clemence Medforde at Ankerwyke in 1441 and Eleanor of Arden 
in 1396. See above, pp. 81, 85. 
^ Liveing, op. cit. pp. loo-ioi. 
3 New Coll. MS. i. 88d. ' See above, p. 2o.|. 


Another method of keeping some control over the expenditure 
not only of the head or treasuress of the house, but also of the 
other obedientiaries, was by ordering the regular presentation 
of accounts before the whole convent; and in spite of the in- 
junctions of councils and of bishops no regulation was more 
often broken. Bishop Stapeldon's rules, drawn up for the guidance 
of Polsloe and Canonsleigh, afford a good example of these in- 
junctions, and deal with the presentation of accounts by the 
bailiffs and officers of the house, as well as by the Prioress : 

Item, let the accounts of all your bailiffs, reeves and receivers, both 
foreign and denizen, be overlooked every year, between Easter and 
Whitsuntide, and between the Feast of St Michael and Christmas, 
after final account rendered in the Priory' before the Prioress, or before 
those whom she is pleased to put in her place, and before two or three 
of the most ancient and wise ladies of the said religion and house, 
assigned by the Convent for this purpose; and let the rolls of the 
accounts thus rendered remain in the common treasury, so that they 
may be consulted, if need shall arise by reason of the death of a 
Prioress, or of the death or removal of bailiffs, receivers or reeves. 
Item, let the Prioress each year, between Christmas and Easter, 
before the whole convent, or six ladies assigned by the convent for 
this purpose, show forth the state of the house, and its receipts and 
expenses, not in detail but in gross {ne mie par menue parceles mes 
par grosses sommes), and the debts and the names of the debtors 
and creditors for any sum above forty shillings. And aU these things 
are to be put into writing and placed in the common treasury, to the 
intent that it may be seen each year how your goods increase or 

Bishop Pontoise ordered that at Romsey an account should be 
rendered twice a year and at the end thereof the state of the 
house should be declared by the auditors of the convent, or at 
least by the seniors of the convent, but finding the practice 
in abeyance in 1302 he ordered the account to be rendered once 
a year^; his ordinance was repeated by Bishop Woodlock in 1311^ 
and by Wilham of Wykeham in 1387 ^ both of whom specially 
refer to the rendering of accounts by officials and obedientiaries 

1 Reg. of Bishop Stapeldon, ed. Hingeston-Randolph, p. 318. 

2 Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, pp. 99-100. 
' lb. pp. 102-3. 

' New Coll. MS. f. 87. In 1492, at the visitation by Archbishop Morton's 
commissioners, a nun prays that injunctions be made to the sisters 
and abbess that they choose no one as auditor without consulting the 
Archbishop of Canterbury. Liveing, op. cit. pp. 218-9. 


as well as by the Abbess^. More frequently, especially in the 
smaller houses, the Bishops confined their efforts to extracting 
the main account from the Prioress, with the double object, so 
ungraciously expressed by Archbishop Lee, "that it may appere 
in whate state the housse standith in, and also that it may be 
knowen, whethur she be profitable to the house or not "2. How 
far it was a common practice that the accounts should be audited 
by some external person, it is impossible to say. Our only 
evidence lies in occasional injunctions such as those sent by 
Bishops Pontoise and Woodlock to Romsey, or by Bishop 
Buckingham to Heynings; or an occasional remark, such as the 
Prioress of Blackborough's excuse that she did not render account 
in order "to save the expenses of an auditor"^; or an occasional 
order addressed by a Bishop to some person bidding him go and 
examine the accounts of a house. In 1314 WilUam, rector of 
Londesborough, was made custos of Nunburnholme on pecuhar 
terms, being ordered to go there three times a year and hear 
the accounts of the ministers and prepositi of the house; his 
duties were thus, in effect, those of an unpaid auditor and no 
more*. It is probable that the accounts of bailiffs and other 
servants were audited by the custos, in those houses to which 
such an official was attached 5; whether his own accounts were 
scrutinised is another matter. In 1309 Archbishop Greenfield 
wrote to his own receiver, WilUam de Jafford, to audit the 
accounts of Nunappleton *, and after the revelations of Margaret 
Wavere's maladministration at Catesby in 1445, a commission 
for the inspection of the accounts was granted to the Abbot of 
St James, Northampton ''- In some cases the annual statement 

'■ For other mentions of the rendering of accounts by bailiffs, officiaries, 
etc. see Arden 1306 and Arthington 1315 (V.C.H. Yorks. in, pp. 113, 188), 
Fairwell 1367 (Reg. of Robert de Stretton, p. 119), Elstow 1422 [Line. Visit. 
1, p. 50). 

' Writing to Sinningthwaite in 1534. Yorks. Archaeol. Journ. xvi, 
pp. 442-3. 

^ Visit, of the Dioc. of Norwich (Camden Soc), p. 108. 

* V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 119. 

' Sometimes specific mention is made of this duty, e.g. in 1318 Thomas 
de Mydelsburg, rector of Loftus, was ordered to administer the temporal 
goods of the Cistercian house of Handale, to receive the accounts of the 
servants and to substitute more capable ones for those who were useless. 
lb. Ill, p. 166. Cf. the commission to the rector of Aberford to be custos of 
Kirklees about the same time. Yorks. Archaeol. Journ. xvi, p. 362. 

' V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 171. ' Line. Visit. 11, pp. 52-3. 


of accounts was ordered to be made before the Bishop of the 
diocese, as well as the nuns of the house, and in such cases he 
would act as auditor himself^. 

It was also a common practice for the Visitor to demand 
that the current balance sheet and inventory (the status domus) 
of a monastic house should be produced, together with its 
foundation charter and various other documents, before he took 
the evidence of the inmates at a visitation. The register of Bishop 
Alnwick's visitations shows the procedure very clearly; usually 
there is simply a note to the effect that the Prioress handed in 
the status domus, but at some houses the Bishop encountered 
difficulties. At St Michael's Stamford, in 1440, the old Prioress 
(who, it will be remembered, had rendered no account at all 
during her twelve years of office) was unable to produce a balance 
sheet, or one of the required certificates, and Alnwick was obliged 
to proceed with her examination " hiis exhibendis non exhibitis." 
He made shift however to extract some verbal information from 
her; she said that the house was in debt £20 at her installation 
and now only 20 marks, that it could expend £40, besides 10 
marks appropriated to the office of pittancer and besides "the 
perquisites of the stewardship"; she said also "that they plough 
with two teams and they have eight oxen, seven horses, a 
baiUff, four serving-folk, a carter for the teams, and a man who 
is their baker and brewer, whose wife makes the malt"^. At 
Legboume also the Prioress 

showed the state of the house, as it now stands, as they say, but not 

annual charges, etc She says that the house owed £^^ at the time 

of her confirmation and installation and now only ;^i4; nevertheless 
because the state of the house is not fully shown, she has the next day 
at Louth to show it more fuUy^. 

At Ankerwyke also Olemence Medforde gave in an incomplete 

balance sheet: 

she shewed a roll containing the rents of the house, which, after 
deducting rent-charges, reach the total of £^2. 6. 7. Touching the 

1 In 1442, for instance, the Prioress of Rusper was ordered to render 
accounts yearly before the Bishop of Chichester and the nuns of the house 
{Sussex Arch. Coll. v, p. 255), and at Sheppey in 151 1, two nuns having com- 
plained that the Prioress did not account, she was ordered to render accounts, 
with an inventory to the convent and to Archbishop Warham {E.H.R. 

VI, p. 34)- 

s Alnwick Visit. MS. f. 83. ^ Line. Visit. 11, p. 184. 


stewardship of the temporahties and touching the other receipts, a 
from alms and other hke sources, she shews nothing, and says tha 
at the time of her preferment the house was 300 marks in deb1 
and now is in debt only ;^40, and she declares some of the names c 
the creditors of this sum'. 

A special demand for a complete statement of accounts wa 
sometimes made in cases where gross maladministration wa 
charged against a prioress. Thus in 1310 Archbishop Greenfiel( 
ordered an investigation of certain charges (unspecified, bu 
clearly of this nature) made against the Prioress of Rosedale 
her accounts, 

as well as those of all baUifis and other officials and servants who wen 
bound to render accounts, were to be examined and the prioress wa: 
ordered to render to the commissioners full and complete account; 
from the time of her promotion, as well as a statement of the thei 
position of the house, 

and a further letter from the Archbishop to the Subprioress and 
nuns ordered them to display the status domus to the com- 
missioners, as it was when the Prioress took office and as i1 
was at the time he wrote. She resigned shortly afterwards 
sentiens se inipotentem; but in 1315 her successor was enjoined 
to draw up a certified statement showing the credit and debil 
accounts of the house and to send it to the Archbishop before 
a certain date^. Usually the Bishop demanded not only the 
account roll of a house, but also an inventory, doubtless in ordei 
that he might see whether anything had been alienated, and 
these inventories sometimes remain attached to the account ol 
the visitation preserved in the episcopal register^. 

1 Line. Visit. 11, p. i. ' V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 174, 

^ An inventory of the goods of Easebourne Priory, drawn up for the 
Bishop of Chichester on May 27th, 1450, has survived. It is very complete 
and comprises all departments of the house, together with a list of land, 
chapels and appropriated churches and a note that the house can expend in 
all £2.2. 3s. on repairs and other expenses and that the debts "for repairs 
and other necessary expenses this year" amount to £6(>. 6s. id. Sussex 
Arch. Coll. IX, pp. 10-13. It may be of interest to quote the briefer inventory 
of the poor house of Ankerwyke, as presented to Bishop Atwater at his 
visitation in 15 19 and copied by his clerk into the register. There were at 
the time five nuns in the house and one in apostasy. " Redditus ibidem ex- 
tendunt prima facie ad xxxiij li. x s. Inde resoluunt pro libris (sic) redditibus 
V li. X s. Et sic habent clare ad reparacionem & alia onera sustinenda ultra 
xl marcas. Jocalia in Ecclesia: Habent ibidem vestimenta sacerdotalia ad 
minus serica xiij. Habent eciam vnicam capam de serica & auro. j caUcem 
de argento deaurato. j par Turribulorum. j pixidem de argento pro Sacra- 
mento, ij libros missales impressos. j magnum par candelabrorum ante 


If a Prioress were found to be hopelessly incompetent or 
unscrupulous, but not bad enough to be deprived of her position. 
Bishops sometimes took the extreme measure of appointing one 
or more coadjutresses, to govern the house in conjunction with 
her; and often (even when there was no complaint against the 
Prioress) the nuns were ordered to elect treasuresses, to receive 
and disburse the income of the house from all sources. One of the 
comperta at the visitation of Swine in 1268 was to the effect that 

the sums of money which are bestowed in charity upon the convent, 
for pittances and garments and other necessary uses, are received 
by the Prioress ; which ought the rather to be in the custody of two 
honest nuns and distributed to those in need of them, and in no wise 
converted to other uses^. 

At NunkeeUng in 1314 it was ordained that all money due to 
the house should be received by two bursars, elected by the 
convent^, and in 1323 Bishop Cobham of Worcester made a 
similar injunction at Wroxall, that two sisters were to be chosen 
by the chapter, to do the business of the convent in receiving 
rents, etc.^ Elaborate arrangements for the appointment of 
treasuresses were made by Bishop Bokyngham at Elstow and 
at Heynings, in 1388 and 1392 respectively, and by Bishop 
Flemyng at Elstow in 1421-2*. It will suffice here to quote 
the much earher arrangement made by Archbishop Peckham at 
Usk in 1284: 

"Since," he wrote, "lately visiting you by our metropolitan right, 
we found you in a most desolate state {multipliciter desolatas), desiring 
to avoid such desolation in future, we order, by the counsel of dis- 
creet men, that henceforth two provident and discreet nuns be elected 
by the consent of the prioress and community; into whose hands all 
the money of the house shall be brought, whether from granges, or 

summum altare. j paruum par candelabrorum super summum altare. 
ij urciolos argenteos. j paxbread de argento, una parua campana argentea. 
Catalla: Habent vaccas duas, ij equas, boues senes iij, unus bouiculus (sic), 
j vaccam anne (sic) (blank), iij equas pro aratro. Vtensilia vj plumalia, 
X paria linthiaminum, iiij superpellectilia, iiij paria de le blanketts, ij le 
white Testers. Habent Redditus Annuales preter terras ipsarum domini- 
calium (sic) in earundem manibus occupatas xlvj li. xj s. x d." Line. Epis. 
Reg. Visit. Atwater, f. 42. A fair number of inventories of convent property 
made for this or for other purposes is extant; notably those drawn up, for 
purposes of spoliation instead of preservation, at the Dissolution. See 

1 Reg. of Walter Giffard (Surtees Soc), p. 147. 

2 V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 120. 

^ V.C.H. Warwick, 11, p. 71. * See below, p. 226. 


from appropriated churches, or coming from any other offerings, to 
be carefully looked after by their consent. And as well the Prioress 
as the other nuns shall receive (money for) all necessary expenses 
from their hands and in no manner otherwise. And we will that these 
nuns be called Treasuresses, which Treasuresses thrice in the year, 
to wit in Lent, Whitsuntide and on the Feast of St Michael, shall 
render account before the Prioress for the time being and before five 
or six elders of the chapter," 

In addition they were to have a priest as ctistos or administrator 
of their temporal and spiritual possessions^. 

The appointment of a coadjutress to the head of a house in 
the administration of its affairs is of the same nature. The 
appointment of coadjutresses was a favourite device with Arch- 
bishop Peckham, to check an extravagant or incapable head. 
At the great abbey of Romsey three coadjutresses were ap- 
pointed, without whose testimony and advice the Abbess was 
to undertake no important business^. At WherweU one co- 
adjutress only, a certain J. de Ver, was appointed in 1284, and 
the same year the Archbishop wrote to his commissary on the 
subject of the Priory of the Holy Sepulchre, Canterbury: 

Since by the carelessness and neglect of the Prioress the goods of the 
house are said to be much wasted, we wish you to assign to her two 
coadjutresses, to wit Dame Sara and another of the more honest and 
wise ladies; but let neither be Benedicta, who is said to have greatly 
offended the whole community by her discords. 

Here, as at Usk, Peckham appointed in addition a master to 
look after their affairs^. At the disorderly house of Arthington 
Isabella Gouvel was in 1312 associated with the Prioress Isabella 
de Berghby, but the Prioress seems to have resented the ap- 
pointment and promptly ran away*. In the Exeter diocese 
Bishop Stapeldon made Joan de Radyngton coadjutress to 
Petronilla, Abbess of Canonsleigh in 13208; and in the diocese 
of Bath and Wells Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury in 1335 appointed 
two coadjutresses to Cecilia de Draycote, Prioress of White Hall, 
Ilchester, and in 1351, when his visitation had revealed many 
scandals at Gannington, including the simoniacal admission of 
nuns and unauthorised sale of corrodies by the Prioress, the 

' Reg. Epis. Johannis Peckham (Rolls Ser.), iii, pp. 805-6. 

- See below, pp. 337-8. 

^ See Reg. Epis. Johannis Peckham (Rolls. Ser.), 11, pp. 6=;4-s 6sa 708. 

* V.C.H. Yorks. 11, pp. 187-8. 

* Reg. of Bishop Stapeldon, ed. Hingeston-Randolph, p. 96. 


Jishop, instead of depriving her "tempered the rigour of the 
iw with clemency" and appointed two coadjutresses without 
sfhose consent she was to do nothing^. Bishop Alnwick made 
ise of this method of controlling a superior in several cases 
vhere serious mismanagement had come to light at his visita- 
ion^, and other instances of this method of controlling the 
.dministration of a superior might be multiplied from the e pis- 
opal registers. 

The appointment of treasuresses and of coadjutresses and 
he provision for due consultation of the chapter, custody of 
he common seal and presentment of accounts had the purpose 
if safeguarding the nuns against reckless expenditure or mal- 
dministration by the head of the house, and, where the inj unc- 
ions of the Visitor were carried out, such precautions doubtless 
iroved of use. Some further check was, however, necessary, to 
afeguard the nuns against themselves, and to prevent the whole 
onvent from rash sales of land, alienation of goods and from 
11 those other improvident devices for obtaining ready money, 
which they were so much addicted. The Bishop often at- 
empted to impose such a check by forbidding certain steps to 
e taken without his own consent. The business for which an 
piscopal Ucence was necessary usually comprised the alienation 
f land or its lease for Ufe or for a long term of years, the sale 
f any corrodies or payment of any fees or pensions, and (as 
as already been pointed out) the reception of new inmates, 
'ho might overcrowd the house and thus impose a strain upon 
s revenues*. Other business, such as the sale of woods, was 
jmetimes included*. The prohibition of corrodies, fees and 
ensions was doubtless intended to protect the nuns against the 
tactions of patrons and other persons, who claimed the right 
) pension off relatives or old servants by this means, as well 
; against their own improvidence in selhng such doles for 

1 Reg. of Ralph of Shrewsbury (Somerset Rec. Soc), pp. 240-1, 684. 

2 At Ankerwyke, Catesby, Gracedieu and St Michael's Stamford. Line. 
isU. II, pp. 6, 9, 52, 125; Alnwick's Visit. MS. 1 39^. 

' To this reception of boarders was sometimes added, but with a different 
irpose, viz. to protect the nuns from contact with the world. 

' At Moxby in 1318 no fresh debts, especially large ones, were to be 
3urred without the convent's consent and the Archbishop's special licence. 
C.H. Yorks. in, p. 239. At Nuncoton in 1440 "ne that ye aleyne or selle 
y bondman" was added to the usual prohibition. Alnwick's Visit. MS. 

P.N. 15 

226 fina:ncial difficulties [ca. 

inadequate sums of ready money. As typical of such prohibitions 
may be quoted Alnwick's injunction (given in two parts) to 
Harrold in 1442-3: 

Also we enioyne yow, prioresse, and your sucessours vndere payne of 
pry[v]acyone and perpetueUe amocyone fro your and thaire astate and 
dygnyte that fro hense forthe ye ne thai selle, graunte ne gyfe to ony 
persone what euer thai be any corrody, lyverye, pensyone or anuyte 
to terme of lyve, certeyn tyme or perpetually, but if ye or thai fyrste 
declare the cause to vs or our successours bysshoppes of Lincolne, and 
in that case have our specyalle hcence or of our saide successours and 
also the fulle assent of the more hole parte of your couent. Also we 
enio)me yow prioresse and your successours vndere the payne of 
priuacyone afore saide that ye ne thai selle, gyfe, aleyne, ne telle no 
grete wode or tymbere, saue to necessary reparacyone of your place 
and your tenaundryes, but if ye and thai hafe specyalle licence ther 
to, of vs or our successours bysshoppes of Lincolne and the cause 
declared to vs or our successours^. 

An exceptionally conscientious Bishop would sometimes send 
even more full and elaborate instructions to a nunnery on the 
management of its property, and examples of such minute regula- 
tions are to be found in the injunctions sent to Elstow Abbey 
at different times by Bishop Bokyngham (1387)^, Archbishop 
Oourtenay (1389)^ and Bishop Flemyng (1421-2)*. Bishop 
Bokyngham also sent very full injunctions to Heynings in 1392 
and these may be quoted to illustrate the care which the Visitors 
sometimes took to set a house upon a firm financial footing, so 
far as it was possible to do so by the mere giving of good advice: 

The Prioress, indeed, shall attempt to do nothing without the counsel 
of two nuns, elected by the convent to assist her in the government 

' Line. Visit. 11, p. 131. A few other instances of these injunctions may 
be given: Arden (1306), Marrick (1252), Nunbumholme (1318), Nunkeeling 
(13 14), Thicket (1309), Yediugham (1314), Esholt (1318), Hampole (1308, 
1312), Nunappleton (1489), Rosedale (1315), Sinningthwaite (1315), 
Arthington (1318), Moxby (1314, 1318, 1328), V.C.H. Yorks. iii, pp. 113, 
117, 119, 124, 128, 161, 163, 172, 174, 177, 188, 239-40; Sinningthwaite 
(1534), Yorks. Arch. Journ. xvi, p. 441; Arthington (1286), Reg. John le 
Romeyn (Surtees See. i, p. 55) ; Ankerwyke, Godstow, Gracedieu, Heynings, 
Langley, Legbourne, Markyate, Nuncoton, Stixwould, St Michael's Stam- 
ford (all 1440-5), Line. Visit. 11, pp. 8, 115, 124, 134, 186 and Alnwick's Visit. 
MS. ff. 6d, j-jd, Sid, 75^; Elstow {1359), Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Gynewell, 
f. I39«?; Elstow (1421), Burnham (1434), Line. Visit, i, pp. 24, 49; Studley, 
Nuncoton (1531), Areh. XLVil, pp. 54, 58; Polsloe and Canonsleigh (1319), 
Reg. Stapeldon of Exeter, -p. 317; Romsey (1302), Reg. J. de Pontissara.p. 127. 

' Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, f. 343. 

^ Lambeth Reg. Courtenay I, f. 336. * Line. Visit. 11, pp. 49-50. 



of the aforesaid priory, both within and without; and when any 
important business has to be done concerning the state of the priory, 
the same Prioress shall expound it to the convent in common, and 
shall settle and accompHsh it according to their counsel, to the ad- 
vantage of the aforesaid house. And each year the receiver shall 
display fully in chapter to the convent in common the state of the 
house and an account of the administration of its goods, clearly and 
openly written.... Item we command and ordain that the common 
seal and muniments of the house be faithfully kept under three locks, 
of which one key shall be in the custody of the prioress, another of 
the subprioress and the third of a nun elected for this purpose by the 
convent.... Item we enjoin and command that two receivers be each 
year elected by the chapter, who shaU receive all money whatsoever, 
forthcoming from the churches, manors or rents of the said priory, 
the which two elected (receivers), together with the Prioress and with 
an auditor deputed in the name of the convent, shall hear and receive 
in writing the computation, account and reckoning of all bailiffs with- 
out the precincts of the house, who receive any moneys, or any other 
goods whatsoever in the name of the said convent, from churches, 
manors or rents. And afterwards the same two elected receivers, 
before the Prioress and two other of the greater, elder and more pru- 
dent nuns, elected to this end by the convent, shall faithfully render 
at least twice every year the account and computation of all the receipts 
and expenses of the same (receivers) within the precincts of the afore- 
said house, to the said Prioress and two sisters elected and deputed 
in the name of the convent. And when this has been done, we will 
and enjoin that twice in everj' year the Prioress of the aforesaid house 
show the whole state of the aforesaid house in chapter, the whole 
convent being assembled on a certain day for this purpose. And we 
will that the roll of the aforesaid balance sheet, or paper of account or 
reckoning, remain altogether in the archives of the aforesaid house, 
thatthe prioress and the elder and more prudent (nuns) of the aforesaid 
house may be able easily to learn the state of the same in future years 
and whenever any difficulty may arise. And let bailiffs be constituted 
of sufficient faculties and of commendable discretion and fideUty, the 
best that can be found, and let them similarly render due account 

every year before the same prioress and convent Furthermore we 

will that the Prioress and convent of the aforesaid house do not sell 
or concede in perpetuity or grant for a term corrodies, stipends, 
hveries or pensions to clerics or to laymen, save with our hcence first 
sought and obtained^. 

At Elstow Bokyngham gave a more detailed injunction about 
the appointment of bailiffs and other officers. 

1 Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, 6. 397-397^. These injunctions 
are scattered among the others, but have been placed together here for the 
sake of reference. 



Let the Abbess for the government of the aforesaid monastery have 
faithful servants, in especial for the government and supervision 
without waste of the husbandry and the manors and stock and woods 
of the aforesaid house; the which the Abbess herself is bound, if she 
can, to supervise each year in person, or else let her cause them to be 
industriously supervised by others; and to look after the external 
and internal business of the house and to prosecute it outside let her 
appoint also some man of proven experience and of mature age^. 

The purpose of those regulations and restrictions which have 
hitherto been described, was to assist the nuns in managing 
their own finances. But the nuns were never very good business 
women, and they were moreover in theory confined to the pre- 
cincts of the cloister, so that it was difficult for them to manage 
their own business, unless they imperilled their souls by excur- 
sions into the world. During the thirteenth and early fourteenth 
centuries, therefore, a common method of extricating them from 
their difficulties was by appointing a male guardian, known in 
different places as Custos, Prior, Warden or Master, to supervise 
the temporal affairs of a house and to look after its finances. 
In the early history of Cistercian nunneries each house was 
governed jointly by a Prior and Prioress and in some cases a 
few canons are found holding the temporalities jointly with the 
nuns. Of these Cistercian houses Mr Hamilton Thompson says : 

As in the case of the Gilbertine priories, such nunneries are rarely 
found outside Lincolnshire and Yorkshire: they were under the 
bishop's supervision and their connexion with the order of Citeaux 
was nominal. Their geographical distribution, as well as the fact that 
St Gilbert attempted to af&hate his nunneries to the Cistercian order 
and modelled them upon its rule, provokes the suspicion that such 
houses were a result of the growth of the Gilbertine order, and, if 
not intended to become double houses, were at any rate imitations of 
the corporations of nuns at Sempringham and elsewhere^. 

References to canons occur in connection with the houses of 
Stixwould, Heynings and Legbourne in Lincolnshire', Catesby 
in Northamptonshire* and Swine in Yorkshire 5. The comperta 

' Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, f. 343. Compare Flemyng's in- 
junctions in 1422. Line. Visit, i, p. 49. 

" Line. Visit, i, p. 151. 

' V.C.H. Lines. 11, pp. 148, 150, 154 (note i). 

' V.C.H. Norihants. II, p. 121. 

•' V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, pp. 178-9, and Reg. of Archbishop Giffard (Surtees 
Soc), pp. 147-8. The canons at these houses must be distinguished from the 


of Archbishop Giffard's visitation of Swine in 1267-8 show that 
the house at that time closely resembled the double houses 
belonging to the Gilbertine order. 

Item compertum est, that the two windo\\'T5, b);- which the food and 
drink of the canons and lay brothers are conveyed (to them), are not 
at all well guarded by the two nuns who are called janitresses, in- 
asmuch as suspicious conversations are frequently held there between 
the canons and lay brothers on the one hand and the nuns and sisters 
on the other. Item compertum est that the door which leads to the 
church is not at all carefully kept by a certain secular boy, who 
permits the canons and lay brothers to enter indiscriminately in the 
twilight, that they may talk with the nuns and sisters, the which 
door was wont to be guarded diUgently by a trusty and energetic 
lay brother. 

It has already been described how the ill-management of the 
canons and lay brothers ("who dissipate and consume, under 
colour of guardianship, the goods outside, which were wont to 
be committed to the guardianship of one of the nuns") caused 
the nuns to go short in clothes and food and even to be reduced 
to drinking water instead of beer twice a week, though the 
canons and their friends "did themselves very well" {satis 
hahundanter et laute procuranturY In most cases this double 
constitution of nuns and canons was in abeyance in Cistercian 
houses before the fourteenth century, though a prior and canons 
are mentioned at Stixwould in 1308^ and Richard de Staunton, 

canons who held prebendal stalls in the Abbeys of Romsey, St Mary's, 
Winchester, Wherwell, Wilton and Shaftesbury; these were often bad 
pluralists and could have been of little use to the abbeys, as chaplains or as 
custodes. See V.C.H. Hants. 11, pp. 122-3 ^iid P- '44 above, note i. 

^ Loc. cit. Compare the complaint of the nuns of Brodholme in 1321-2. 
"A nostre Seyngnur le Roy e a son Counsaill monstrent le Prioresse el 
Covente de Brodholme, qe lour Gardayns de la dit meson par lour defaute 
sount lour Rentes abatez, e lour meson a poy ennente e le dit Gardayns 
ne vollent nuUe entent mettre ne despender pur les ayder kaunt eles sount 
empleydie, mes come eles meymes defendent a graunt meschef. Pur qoi 
eles prient pur I'amour de Dieu, trescher Seygnour, pur I'alme vostre Pier, 
e ouir de charite, qe Vous voUez graunter vostre Charter qe I'avantdit 
Prioresse el covent pouissent avoir lour rentes e lour enproumens, de ordiner 
a lour voluntes, e al profist de la dit meson, si pleiser Vous soit, Kare autre- 
ment ne poivent eles viver." The reply was " Injusta est peticio, ideo non 
potest fieri." Rot. Pari. I, pp. 393-4. Brodholme was one of the only two 
convents of Premonstratensian nuns in England ; the guardians were prob- 
ably the canons of the Premonstratensian Abbey of Newhouse ; for an ordi- 
nance (1354, confirmed 1409) regulating the relations between the two houses, 
see Col. of Papal Letters, vi, pp. 159-60. 

* V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 148 (from Pat. 2 Edw. II, pt ii, m. 22<i.), 


"canon of Catesby," was made master of that house as late as 


In other houses where no trace of canons has survived there 
are often references to the resident Prior, especially in the 
dioceses of York and Lincoln, and this official is sometimes found 
in Benedictine houses (e.g. Godstow^, St Michael's Stamford^, and 
King's Mead, Derby *) . He seems to have acted as senior chaplain 
and confessor to the nuns as well as supervising their financial 
business. In cases where a nunnery was in some sort of depen- 
dence upon an abbey or priory of monks, it is usual to find a 
religious of that house acting as custos of the nuns. At St 
Michael's Stamford, for instance, the abbots of Peterborough 
had the right of nominating a resident prior, subject to the 
approval of the Bishop of Lincoln, and the office was often 
held by a monk of Peterborough ^. Similarly a monk of St Albans 
acted as custos of Sopwell^ and a canon of Newhouse dwelt at 
Brodholme "to say daily mass for the sisters and to overlook 
their temporalities"'. The joint rule of Cistercian houses by a 
Prior and Prioress seems to have died out in most cases by the 
end of the thirteenth century, but it was customary for some 
secular or regular cleric to be appointed in most of the small 
and poor houses of York and Lincoln to look after their business^. 

1 Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, i. 330. Roger de Dauentry, canon of 
Catesby, had been made master in 1297. Reg. Memo. Sutton, i. 175. 

^ Reg. Epis. Johannis Peckham, ill, pp. 850—1. 

' V.C.H. Northants. 11, p. 98. * V.C.H. Derby. 11, p. 43. 

^ Loc. cit. see also Lino. Epis. Reg. Institution Roll {Northampton) of 
Sutton for the presentation of William de Stok, monk of Peterborough as 
Prior of St Michael's Stamford, by the Abbot, and the Bishop's ratification. 

° Walsingham, Gesta Abbatum (Rolls Ser.), 11, p. 519, and V.C.H. Herts. 
IV, p. 429. On their misdeeds see Archbishop Morton's famous letter in 
1490. Wilkins, Concilia, iii, p. 632. 

' See Cal. of Papal Letters, vi, pp. 159-160. 

' Mention of custodes occurs at the following houses, in addition to those 
mentioned in the text: Studley (1290), Goring (1309), V.C.H. Oxon. 11, 
pp. 78, 104; Markyate (1323), Harrold (late thirteenth century), V.C.H. Beds. 
I, pp. 359, 388; Flamstead (1337), Rowney (1302, 1328), V.C.H. Herts. 
IV, pp. 432, 434; Arden (1302, 1324), Marrick (1252), Nunburnholme (1314), 
Yedingham (1280), Basedale (1304), Hampole (1268, 1280, 1308), Handale 
(1318), Nunappleton (1306), Swine (1267, 1291, 1298), V.C.H. Yorks. in, 
pp. 113, 117, 119, 127, 159, 163, 166, 171, 180; all in Lincoln or York, 
For mention of cMSioeZes in other dioceses, see Cookhill (1285), Reg. of Godfrey 
Giffard (Wore. Hist. Soc), 11, p. 267; St Sepulchre's Canterbury, Davington, 
Usk, Whitehall (Ilchester), Minchin Barrow, Easebourne, St Bartholomew's 
Newcastle, King's Mead, Derby, below, pp. 231-5 passim. The frequency 
with which custodes occur in houses in the diocese of Lincoln and York and 


Usually the cusios appointed was the vicar or rector of some 
neighbouring parish. Archbishop Romeyn, for instance, placed 
Sinningthwaite, Wilberfoss and Arthington under the guardian- 
ship of the rectors of Kirk Deighton, Sutton-on-Derwent and 
Kippax respectively, and he made the vicars of Thirkleby and 
Bossall successively masters of Moxby^. Bishop Dalderby of 
Lincoln appointed neighbouring rectors and vicars to be masters 
of Legbourne, Godstow, Rowney, Sewardsley, Fosse, Delapre, 
St Leonard's Grimsby, and Nuncoton^. 

Sometimes, on the other hand, canons or monks of religious 
houses in the vicinity were charged with looking after the affairs 
of nunneries. Swine was managed by Robert de Spalding, a 
canon of the Premonstratensian house of Croxton, and in 1289- 
go Archbishop Romeyn wrote remonstrating with the Abbot of 
Croxton for recalling him, and begging that he might be allowed 
to continue at Swine, "cum idem vester canonicus proficuos 
labores ibidem impendent ad relevacionem probabilem depres- 
sionis notorie dicte domus"; but the capable Robert was not 
allowed to return and in 1290 John Bustard, canon of St Robert's 
Knaresborough, was appointed in his place. John was not a 
success and the next year the Abbot removed him; in 1295 
Robert of Spalding became master again and in 1298 the rector 
of Londesborough was appointed^. At Catesby in 1293 the office 
of master was held by a certain Robert de Wardon, a canon of 
Canons Ashby, who had apparently left the nuns and gone 
back to his own house, to the great detriment of the nunnery, 
for Bishop Sutton wrote in 1293 to the Prior of Canons Ashby, 
bidding him send back the truant *. Similarly a canon of Wellow 
is found as warden of St Leonard's Grimsby in 1232 and in 

their rarity in other dioceses would seem to support the theory of Gilbertine 
influence. Of the cases quoted from other dioceses all are either custodes 
appointed as a. deUberate policy by Archbishop Peckham, or custodes 
appointed to meet some special moral or financial crisis, not regular officials. 
King's Mead, Derby, seems to be the only nunnery outside the two dioceses 
of York and Lincoln (with the exception of those in direct dependence on 
a house of monks) which started its career under the joint government of 
a custos and a Prioress. V .C.H. Derby, 11, p. 43. 

1 Reg. of John le Romeyn (Surtees Soc), I, pp. xii, xiii, 86, 125, 157, 180. 

2 Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, S.2id,-i7,'i4,6od,jgd, 118^,328^,366, 
373. 378, 382, 388. (These comprise two appointments to Rowney, Godstow 
and Nuncoton; the dates are between 1301 and 1318.) 

' Reg. of John le Romeyn, i, pp. 203-4, 209, 211, 217. 
* Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Sutton, fi. 821^-83. 


1303I, a monk of Whitby as guardian of Handale and Basedale 
in I268^ a canon of Newburgh at Arden in 1302' and a canon of 
Lincoln at Heynings in 1291 : concerning the latter Bishop Sutton 
wrote to the nuns that since, "because of private business and 
various other impediments he is prevented from looking after 
your business as much as it requires, the vicar of Upton your 
neighbour is to look after your affairs in his absence," and in 
1294 he was definitely replaced by the rector of Blankney*. It 
is clear from this letter that the masters of nunneries could be 
non-resident and this was no doubt usually the case when the 
office was held by the rector of a neighbouring parish. Indeed 
sometimes the same man would be master of more than one 
nunnery ; as in the case of the monk of Whitby mentioned above. 
It was probably rare after the beginning of the fourteenth 
century for a custos to reside at a nunnery, as the early Cistercian 
priors had done 5. 

The appointment of custodes to manage the finances of 
nunneries was a favourite policy with Archbishop Peckham, 
doubtless because it facilitated the enforcement of strict en- 
closure upon the nuns. At Godstow there was already 
at the time a master, but Peckham also gave the custody of 
Davington to the vicar of Faversham in 1279, and that of Holy 
Sepulchre, Canterbury, to the vicar of Wickham in 1284, while 
at Usk in 1284 he ordered the nuns to have "some senior priest 
circumspect in temporal and in spiritual affairs to be, with the 
consent of the diocesan, master of all your goods, internal and 
external, temporal and spiritual"*. At other times a custos would 
be appointed to meet a particular difficulty when the financial 
state of a house had become specially weak. About 1303, for 

'■ V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 179. But in 1318 Dalderby appointed the vicar 
of Little Coates, loc. cit. f. 373. Originally St Leonard's Grimsby, had been 
placed under the protection of the canons of Wellow. 

* Reg. of Archbishop Giffard (Surtees Soc), p. 54. 
' V.C.H. Yorks. III. p. 113. 

* Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Sutton, ff. 25, g2d. 

' Sometimes the chaplain of the house must have acted as an unofficial 
custos and sometimes he held the position by special mandate, e.g. in 1285 
Bishop Giffard ordered the nuns of Cookhill that " for the better conduct of 
temporal business and for the increase of divine praise," Thomas their 
chaplain was to have full charge of their temporal afiairs. Reg. of Godfrey 
Giffard (Wore. Hist. Soc), 11, p. 267. 

° Reg. Epis. Johannis Peckham (Rolls Ser.), i, pp. 72-3; 11, pp. 708-9, 
III, p. 806. 


instance, a monk of Peterborough was made for a season special 
warden of St Michael's, Stamford, "with fuU powers over the 
temporalities and of adjudicating and ordering all temporal 
matters both within and without the convent as he should think 
profitable"; the appointment is specially interesting because 
there was at the time a resident prior at St Michael's and the 
"spiritual disposition of all things concerning the house" is 
reserved to this prior and to the prioress*. A more serious crisis 
occurred at the Priory of White Hall, Ilchester, which was 
evidently in a disorderly condition at the beginning of the 
fourteenth century. In 1323 Bishop John of Drokensford wrote 
to Henry of Birlaunde, rector of Stoke and to John de Herminal, 
announcing that the Prioress, Alice de Chilterne, was defamed 
of incontinence with a chaplain and had so mismanaged and 
turned to her own nefarious uses the revenues of the house that 
her sisters were compelled to beg their bread; she had however 
submitted herself to the Bishop, but as public affairs called him 
to London and as he did not wish to leave the nunnery un- 
provided for, he committed the custody to these two men, 
ordering them to administer the necessities of life to the Prioress 
and sisters, according to the means of the house, until his return^. 
Some ten years later Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury similarly 
gave the custody of White Hall, Ilchester, to the rectors of 
Limington and St John's Ilchester'. The nunnery of Barrow, 
near Bristol, was also in a disorderly condition; in 1315 John 
of Drokensford wrote to the Prioress ordering her to leave the 
management of secular matters to a custos appointed by him, 
and the same day appointed WiUiam de Sutton; and in 1324-5, 
when he had been obliged to remove the Prioress Joanna Gurney, 
he committed the custody of the house to Wilham, rector of 
Backwell, ordering him to do the best he could with the advice 
of the subprioress and one of the nunsf More often sheer 
financial distress, rather than moral disorder, was the reason 
for which a custos was appointed to a house. At St Sepulchre's 

' V.C.H. Northants. 11, p. 99. 

» V.C.H. Somerset, 11, p. 157. Text in Hugo, Medieval Nunneries of the 
County of Somerset : Whitehall in Ilchester, App, vii, pp. 78-9. 

' Reg. of Ralph of Shrewsbury (Somerset Rec. Soc), p. 177. 

* Hugo, op. cit. Minchin Barrow Priory, App. 11, pp. 81-3. With these 
cases compare the appointment of custodes to the worldly Prioress of Ease- 
bourne in 1441. See above, p. 77. 


Canterbury, the rector of Whitstable was made custos, "b; 
reason of the miserable want and extreme poverty of the sai( 
house" (1359) and for the same reason another secular cleric re 
ceived the "supervision, custody or administration " of the sami 
house in 1365 1. In 1366 Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham 

pitying the miserable state of St Bartholomew's at Newcastle-on 
Tyne, both as to spirituals and temporals, and dreading the immediat 
ruin thereof, unless some speedy remedy should be applied, committei 
it to the care of Hugh de ArnecUffe, priest in the church of St Nichola 
in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, strictly enjoining the prioress and nuns ti 
be obedient to him in every particular and trusting to his prudenc' 
to find relief for the poor servants of Christ here, in their poverty anc 

Sometimes the nuns themselves begged for a custos to assis 
them, in terms which show that they found the managemen 
of their own finances too much for them. At Godstow in 1316 th 
King was obhged, at the request of the Abbess and nuns, ti 
take the Abbey into his special protection "on account of it 
miserable state," and he appointed the Abbot of Eynsham an( 
the Prior of Bicester as keepers, ordering them to pay the nun 
a certain allowance and to apply the residue to the dischargiu; 
of their debts *. Similarly in 1327 the Prioress and nuns of King' 
Mead, Derby, represented themselves as much reduced, ani 
begged the King to take the house into his special protectior 
granting the custody of it to Robert of Alsop and Simon c 
Little Chester, until it should be relieved. Three months late 
Edward III granted it protection for three years and appointe 
Robert of Alsop and Simon of Little Chester custodians, whc 
after due provision for the sustenance of the prioress and nun; 
were to apply the issues and rents to the discharge of the liabilitic 
of the house and to the improvement of its condition*. Som 
interesting evidence in this connection was given during Alnwick 
visitations of the diocese of Lincoln. When Clemence Medfordi 
the Prioress of Ankerwyke, was asked whether she had observe 
the Bishop's injunctions, she answered 

that such injunctions were, and are, well observed as regards bo1 
her and her sisters in effect and according to their power, except tl 

1 Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 413, 

2 lb. IV, p. 485. ^ V.C.H. Oxon. 11, p. 73. 

^ V.C.H. Derby, 11, pp. 43-4 (from Ancient Petitions, No. 11730); < 
Cal. Pat. Rolls, 1327-30, p. 139. See above, p. 180. 


injunction whereby she is bound to supply to her sisters sufficient 
raiment for their habits, and as touching the non-observance of that 
injunction she answers that she cannot observe it, because of the 
poverty and insufficiency of the resources of the house, which have 
been much lessened by reason of the want of a surveyor or steward 
{yconomus). Wherefore she besought my lord's good-will and assist- 
ance that he would deign with charitable consideration to make 
provision of such steward or director.... And when these nuns, all and 
several, had been so examined and were gathered together again in 
the chapter house, the said Depyng (the Visitor) gave consideration 
to two grievances, wherein the priory and nuns ahke suffer no small 
damage, the which, as he affirmed, were worthy of reform above the 
rest of those that stood most in need of reform, to wit the lack of 
raiment for the habit, of bedclothes and of a steward or seneschal, 
but in these matters, as he averred, he could not apply a remedy for 
the nonce without riper deliberation and consultation with my lord^. 

Similarly the old Prioress of St Michael's Stamford, when asking 
for the appointment of two nuns as treasuresses, complained "that 
she herself is impotent to rule temporalities, nor have they an 
industrious man to supervise these and to raise and receive 
(external payments)"; another nun said that "they have not 
a discreet layman to rule their temporalities," and a third 
also complained of the lack of a "receiver"^. At Gokewell, on 
the other hand, the Prioress said " that the rector of Flixborough 
is their steward (yconomus) and he looks after the temporalities 
and not she"; he was evidently a true friend to the nuns, for 
she said "that the house does not exceed £10 in rents and is 
greatly in debt to the rector of Fhxborough"^. The terms of 
appointment of custodes often specify the inexpertness of the 
nuns, or their need for someone to supervise the management 
of their estates* Perhaps the fullest set of instructions to a 
custos which have survived are those given by Archbishop Melton 
to Roger de Saxton, rector of Aberford, in making him custos 
of Kirklees in 1317: 

Trusting in your industry, we by tenour of the present (letters) give 
you power during our pleasure to look after, guard and administer 
the temporal possessions of our beloved religious ladies, the Prioress 
and convent of Kirklees in our diocese, throughout their manors and 
buildings (loco) wherever these be, and to receive and hear the account 
of all servants and ministers serving in the same, and to make those 

1 Line. Visit. 11, p. 7. ^ Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 39 d. 

' Line. Visit. 11, p. 117. 

^ See e.g. V.C.H. Yorks. iii, pp. 113, 117, ng- 


payments (allocandum) which by reason ought to be made, as we 
as to remove all useless ministers and servants and to appoint in thai 
place others of greater utUity, and to do all other things which sha 
seem to you to he to the advantage of the place, firmly enjoining th 
said prioress and convent, as well as the sisters and lay brothers c 
the house, in virtue of holy obedience, that they permit you freel 
to administer in all and each of the aforesaid matters^. 

It must have been of great assistance to the worried and in 
competent nuns to have a rehable guardian thus to look afte 
their temporal affairs, and it is difficult to understand why th 
practice of having a resident prior died out at the Cisterciai 
houses and at Benedictine houses (e.g. St Michael's, Stamford 
which had such an of&cial in the thirteenth and early f ourteentl 
centuries. Even the appointment of neighbouring rectors a 
custodes of nunneries in the York and Lincoln dioceses ceased 
apparently, to be common by the middle of the fourteenth 
century^- It is a curious anomaly that this remedy should hav 
been applied less and less often during the very centuries whe: 
the nunneries were becoming increasingly poor, and stood dail 
in greater need of external assistance in the management c 
their temporal affedrs. 

^ Yorks. Arch. Journal, xvi, p. 362. 

' It will be noticed that all the references to custodes given on p. 2y 
note 8, belong to the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries; appoin 
ments at a later date are generally made to meet some regular crisis. The! 
are no references to the Prior of St Michael's Stamford in the later accoui 
rolls of that house, though one or two rolls belonging to the beginning 1 
the century mention him. One of the few references to the regular appoin 
ment of a master in a Cistercian house after the first quarter of the fou 
teenth century is at Legbourne, where " later Lincoln regulations record tl 
appointment of several masters from 1294— 1343 and in 1366 the same offici 
is apparently called an yconomus of Legbourne" {V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 15 
note i) . The will of Adam, vicar of Hallington, " custos sive magister domi 
monialium de Legbourne," dated 1345, has been preserved. Gibbons, Ear 
Lincoln Wills, p. 17. The yconomus of Gokewell in 1440 is a very late i: 
stance. (Compare Bokyngham's advice to the Abbess of Elstow in 138 
above, p. 228.) Much the same function as that of the custos, was, howevf 
probably performed by the steward (senescallus) , an official often mentiom 
during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. 



Abstinence the abbesse myn a. b. c. me tau3te. 

Piers Plowman. 

The Benedictine ideal set study together with prayer and labour 
as the three bases of monastic hfe and in the short golden age of 
English monasticism women as well as men loved books and 
learning. The tale of the Anglo-Saxon nuns who corresponded 
with St Boniface has often been told. Eadburg, Abbess of 
Thanet, wrote the Epistles of St Peter for him in letters of gold 
and sent books to him in the wilds of Germany. Bugga, Abbess 
of a Kentish house, exchanged books with him. The charming 
Lioba, educated by the nuns of Wimborne, sent him verses 
which she had composed in Latin, which "divine art" the nun 
Eadburg had taught her, and begged him to correct the rusticity 
of her style. Afterwards she came into Germany to help him 
and became Abbess of Bischofsheim and her biographer tells how 

she was so bent on reading that she never laid aside her book except 
to pray or to strengthen her slight frame with food and sleep. From 
childhood upwards she had studied grammar and the other Hberal 
arts, and hoped by perseverance to attain a perfect knowledge of 
reUgion, for she was well aware that the gifts of nature are doubled 
by study. She zealously read the books of the Old and New Testa- 
ments and committed their divine precepts to memory; but she 
further added to the rich store of her knowledge by reading the 
writings of the holy Fathers, the canonical decrees and the laws of 
the Church. 

So also an anonymous Anglo-Saxon nun of Heidenheim wrote 
the hves of Willibald and Wunebald^ 

The Anglo-Saxon period seems, however, to have been the 
only one during which English nuns were at aU conspicuous 
for learning. There is indeed very scant material for writing their 
history between the Norman Conquest and the last years of 
the thirteenth century, when Bishops' Registers begin. It is 

1 See account in L. Eckenstein, Woman under Monasticism, ch. iv. 

238 EDUCATION [ci 

never safe to argue from silence and some nuns may still ha\ 
busied themselves over books ; but two facts are significant : v, 
have no trace of women occupying themselves with the cop5rLn 
and illumination of manuscripts and no nunnery produced 
chronicle. The chronicles are the most notable contribution c 
the monastic houses to learning from the eleventh to the fouj 
teenth centuries; and some of the larger nunneries, such a 
Romsey, Lacock, and Shaftesbury, received many visitors an 
must have heard much that was worth recording, besides th 
humbler annals of their own houses. But they recorded nothing 
The whole trend of medieval thought was against learned wome: 
and even in Benedictine nunneries, for which a period of stud; 
was enjoined by the rule, it was evidently considered altogethe 
outside the scope of women to concern themselves with writing 
While the monks composed chronicles, the nuns embroidere( 
copes; and those who sought the gift of a manuscript from th 
monasteries, soughtonlythegiftof needlework from the nunneries 
It is not, perhaps, surprising that the nuns should hav 
written no chronicles and copied few, if any, books. But it i 
surprising that England should after the eighth century be abl 
to show so little record of gifted individuals. Even if the rul 
of a professedly learned order were unlikely to prevail agains 
the general trend of civilisation and to produce learned women 
still it might have been expected that here and there a genius 
or a woman of some talent for authorship, might have flourishe( 
in that favourable soil; or even that a whole house might hav 
enjoyed for a brief halcyon period the zest for learning, whei 
"alle was buxomnesse there and bokes to rede and to lerne.' 
In Germany, at various periods of the middle ages, this di( 
happen. The Abbey of Gandersheim in Saxony was renownec 
for learning in the tenth century and here lived and flourishe( 
the nun Roswitha, who not only wrote religious legends ii 
Latin verse, but even composed seven dramas in the style o 
Terence, a poem on the Emperor Otto the Great and a histor; 
of her own nunnery. From the internal evidence of her work 
it has been thought that this nun was directly familiar with thi 
works of Virgil, Lucan, Horace, Ovid, Terence and perhap 
Plautus, Prudentius,Sedulius, Fortunatus, MartianusCapella am 
Boethius; but apart from this e\ddence of learning, her play 


show her to have been a woman of originahty and some genius ; 
they are strange productions to have emanated from a tenth 
century convent^. It was in Germany again, at Hohenburg in 
Alsace, that the Abbess Herrad in the twelfth century compiled 
and decorated with exquisite illuminations the great encyclo- 
pedia known as the Hortus Deliciarum. This book, one of the 
finest manuscripts which had survived from the middle ages and 
a most invaluable source of information for the manners and 
appearance of the people of Herrad's day, was destroyed in the 
German bombardment of Strasburg in 1870^. The same century 
saw the lives of the two great nun-mystics, St Hildegard of 
Bingen and St Ehsabeth of Schonau, who saw visions, dreamed 
dreams and wrote them down^. In the next century the convent 
of Helfta in Saxony was the home of several literary nuns and 
mystics and was distinguished for culture; its nuns collected 
books, copied them, illuminated them, learned and wrote Latin, 
and three of them, the beguine Mechthild, the nun Saint 
Mechthild von Hackeborn and the nun Gertrud the Great, have 
won considerable fame by their mystic writings * Even in the 
decadent fifteenth century examples are not wanting of German 
nuns who were keenly interested in learning; and in the early 
sixteenth century Charitas Pirckheimer, nun of St Clare at 
Nuremberg and sister of the humanist Wihbald Pirckheimer, 
was in close relations with her brother and with many of his 
friends and f uU of enthusiasm for the new learning '. 

It is strange that in England there is no record of any house 
which can compare with Gandersheim, Hohenburg or Helfta; no 
record of any nun to compare with the learned women and great 
mystics who have been mentioned. The air of the English 
nunneries would seem to have been unfavourable to learning. 
The sole works ascribed to monastic authoresses are a Life of 
St Catherine, written in Norman-French by Clemence, a nun of 
Barking, in the late twelfth century*, and The Boke of St Albans, 

^ L. Eckenstein, Woman under Monasticism, ch. IV, pp. 160 flf. 
= lb. pp. 238 ff. ^ lb. pp. 256 fi. « lb. pp. 328 ff. 

^ lb, pp. 416, 419, 428, 458 ff. 
« See Romania xiii (1884), pp. 400-3. 
"Je ke la vie ai translatee 

Par nun sui Climence numee, 

De Berekinge sui nunain; 

Par s'amur pris ceste oevre en main." 


a treatise on hawking, hunting and coat armour, printed in 14? 
by one Dame Juhana Berners, whom a vague and unsubstantiati 
tradition declares to have been Prioress of Sopwell. Nor < 
nuns seem to have been more active in copying manuscripl 
Several beautiful books, which have come down to our own da 
can be traced to nunneries, but there is no evidence that th( 
were written there and all other evidence makes it highly ir 
probable that they were. It is true that in 1335 we find th 
entry among the issues of the Exchequer: 

To Isabella de Lancaster, a nun of Amesbury, in money paid to hi 
by the hands of John de G^meweU for payment of 100 marks, whic 
the lord the King commanded to be paid her for a book of romanc 
purchased from her for the King's use, which remains in the chamb( 
of the lord the King, 66 1. 13 s. 4 d', 

but it is unUkely that the book thus purchased by the Kin 
from his noble kinswoman was her own work. 

This period of the later ages was, indeed, unfavourable t 
learning among monks as well as among nuns. As the unive] 
sities grew, so the monasteries declined in lustre; learning ha 
no longer need to seek refuge behind cloister walls, and the mos 
promising monks now went to the universities, instead of studyin 
at home in their own houses. The standard of the chronicle 
rapidly declined and the best chronicler of the fourteenth centur 
was not a monk like Matthew Paris, but a secular, a wanderei 
a hanger-on of princes, Froissart. As the fifteenth century passei 
learning declined still further ; and it is evident from the visita 
tions of the time that the monks, whatever else they might be 
were not scholars. We should expect the decline in learning to bi 
more marked still among the nuns, considering how little the; 
had possessed in preceding centuries; and the matter is wortl 
some study, because it concerns not only the education of th 
nuns themselves, but the education which they were quahfiec 
to give to the children who were sent to school with them. 

A word may first be said on the subject of nunnery libraries 
Concerning these we have very little information ; and, such a; 
it is, it does not leave the impression that nunneries were ricl 
in books. No catalogue of a nunnery library^ has come down tc 

' Devon. Issues o] the Exchequer, p. 144. 

' There does exist a catalogue of Syon library, but unluckily it is tha' 
of the brothers' library and the catalogue of the sisters' library is missing 


us and such references to libraries as occur in inventories show 
great poverty in this respect, the books being few and chiefly 
service-books. An inventory of the small and poor convent of 
Easebourne, taken in 1450, shows what was doubtless quite a 
large library for a house of its size. It contained two missals, 
two portiforia (breviaries), four antiphoners, one large Legenda, 
eight psalters, one book of collects, one tropary, one French 
Bible, two ordinalia in French, one book of the Gospels and one 
martyrologyi. The inventories of Henry VIH's commissioners 
give very little information as to books and seem to have found 
few that were of any value. The books found at Sheppey are 
thus described: "ij bokes with ij sylver elapses the pece, and vj 
bokes "with one sylver clasp a pec, 1 bokes good and bad" (in 
the church), " vij bokes, whereof one goodly mase boke of parche- 
ment and dyvers other good bokes" (in the vestry), and "an 
olde presse full of old boks of no valew" (in a chapel in the 
churchyard) and "a boke of Saynts lyfes" (in the parlour) 2. At 
Kilburn were found "two books of Legenda Aurea, one in print, 
the other written, both English, 4d." ; the one in print must have 
been Caxton's edition, thus valued, together with a manuscript, 
at something hke 6s. 8d. in present money for the pair ! Also 
"two mass books, one old written, the other in print, 2od., four 
processions in parchment (3s.) and paper (lod.), two Legends 
in parchment and paper, 8d., and two chests, with divers books 
pertaining to the church, of no value "^. It wiU be noted that 
the boojcs are almost always connected with the church services. 
It is perhaps significant that in only one list of the inmates 
of a house is a nun specifically described as librarian *. 

it was probably a good one since we have notice ol several books written for 
them. See M. Bateson, Cat. of the Lib. of Syon Mon. (1898). Only three 
continental library catalogues survive, of which two are printed and acces- 
sible; one is of the library of the Dominican nuns of Nuremberg, made 
between 1456—69 and containing 350 books, the other belonged to the 
Franciscan tertiaries of Delft in the second half of the fifteenth century 
and contained 109 books; the third comes from the women's cloister at 
Wonnenstein in 1498. See M. Deanesly, The Lollard Bible, pp. 110-5. 

1 Sussex Arch. Coll. IX, p. 12. 

^ Mackenzie, Walcott, Inventories of. ..the Ben. Priory. ..of Shepey for 
Nuns, pp. 21, 23, 28. 

' Dugdale, Mon. iii, p. 424. 

* At a visitation of St Mary's Winchester by Dr Hede in 1501, "Elia 
Pitte, librarian, was also well satisfied with that which was in her charge." 
V.C.H. Hants. 11, p. 124. 

P.N. 16 


Something may be gleaned also from the legacies of books 
left to nuns in medieval wills. These again are nearly always 
psalters or service books of one kind or another; and indeed 
the average layman was more hkely to possess these than other 
books, for all ahke attended the services of the church. Thus 
Sir Robert de Roos in 1392 leaves his daughter, a nun, "a little 
psalter, that was her mother's "i; Sir William de Thorp in 1391 
leaves his sister-in-law, a nun of Greenfield, a psalter^; Wilham 
Stow of Ripon in 1430 leaves the Prioress of Nunmonkton a 
small psalter^, WiUiam Overton of Helmsley in 148 1 leaves his 
niece Elena, a nun of Arden, "one great Primer with a cover of 
red damask " *, and so on. There may be some significance in the 
fact that John Burn, chaplain at York Cathedral, leaves the 
Prioress and Convent of Nunmonkton " an English book of Pater 
Noster"^. It strikes a strange and pleasant note when Thomas 
Reymound in 1418 leaves the Prioress and Convent of Polsloe 
20s. and the Liher Gestorum Karoli, Regis Francie^, and when 
Eleanor Roos of York in 1438 leaves Dame Joan Courtenay 
" unum librum vocatum Mauldebuke," whatever that mysterious 
tome may have contained '. 

Some light is also thrown backward upon their possessors 
by isolated books which have come down to our own day and 
are known to have belonged to nuns. These come mostly, as 
might be expected, from the great abbeys of the south, where 
the nuns were rich and of good birth, from Syon and Barking, 
Amesbury, Wilton and Shaftesbury, St Mary's Winchester, and 
Wherwell^. Sometimes the MS. records the name of the nun 
owner. Wright and Halliwell quote from a Latin breviary, in 

1 Test. Ebor. i, p. 179. ^ Sharpe, Cal. of Wills, 11, p. 327. 

' Test. Ebor. 11, p. 13. * lb. Ill, p. 262. 

' lb. Ill, p. 199. See an interesting list of books left by Peter, vicar of 
Swine, to Swine Priory some time after 1380. King's Descrip. Cat. MS. 18. 

* Reg. Stafford of Exeter, p. 419. ' Test. Ebor. 11, p. 66. 

' For Barking books (including a book of English religious treatises) 
see M. Deanesly, The Lollard Bible, pp. 337-9. Besides the books mentioned 
in the text there are fine psalters written for nuns at St Mary's Winchester, 
Amesbury and Wilton in the libraries of Trinity College, Cambridge, All 
Souls College, Oxford, and the Roya.l College of Physicians respectively. 
There is an interesting book in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (McClean 
MS. 123), which belonged to Nuneaton; it contains (i) the metrical Bestiary 
of William the Norman, (2) the Chasteau d' Amours of Robert Grosseteste, 
(3) exposition of the Paternoster, (4) the Gospel of Nicodemus, (5) Apocalypse 
with pictures, (6) Poema Morale, etc. 


which is an inscription to the effect that it belonged to Alice 
Champnys, nun of Shaftesbury, who bought it for the sum of 
los. from Sir Richard Marshall, rector of the parish church of 
St Rumbold of Shaftesbury. There follows this prayer for the 
use of the nun: 

Trium puerorum cantemus himnum quern cantabant in camino ignis 
benedicentes dominum. O swete Jhesu, thie sonne of God, the endles 
swetnesse of hevyn and of erthe and of all the worlde, be in my herte, 
in my mynde, in my wytt, in my wylle, now and ever more, Amen. 
Jhesu mercy, Jhesu gramercy, Jhesu for thy mercy, Jhesu els I trust 
to thy mercy, Jhesu as thow art fuUe of mercy, Jhesu have mercy 
on me and alle mankjiide redemyd vidth thy precyouse blode. Jhesu, 

A manuscript of Capgrave's Life of St Katharine of Alexandria, 
which belonged to Katherine Babyngton, subprioress of Campsey 
in Suffolk, has a very different inscription; 

Iste hber est ex dono Kateryne Babyngton quondam subpriorisse 
de Campseye et si quis ilium alienauerit sine licencia vna cum con- 
sensu dictarum [sanctimoniaUum] conuentus, malediccionem dei 
omnipotentis incurrat et anathema sit^. 

Sometimes the owner of a manuscript is known to us from other 
sources. There is a splendid psalter, now in St John's College, 
Cambridge, which belonged to the saintly Euphemia, Abbess of 
* Wherwell from 1226 to 1257, whose good deeds were celebrated 
in the chartulary of the house^. In the Hunterian Library at 
Glasgow there is a copy of the first English translation of Thomas 
a Kempis's Imitatio Christi, which belonged to Elizabeth Gibbs, 
Abbess of Syon from 1497 to 1518; it is inscribed 

O vos omnes sorores et ffratres presentes et futuri, orate queso pro 
venerabih matre nostra Elizabeth Gibbis, huius almi Monasterii 
Abbessa [sic], necnon pro deuoto ac reUgioso viro Dompno Willielmo 
Darker, in artibus Magistro de domo Bethleem prope sheen ordinis 
Cartuciensis, qui pro eadem domina Abbessa hunc librum conscripsit ; 

the date 1502 is given*. 

1 Wright and Halliwell, Reliquiae Aniiquae, 11, p. 117. 

2 Capgrave, Life of Si Katharine of Alexandria, ed. Horstmann (E.E.T.S. 
1893), Introd. p. xxix. 

' St John's Coll. MS. 68. Other psalters from the aristocratic house of 
Wherwell are MS. add. 27866 at the British Museum and MS. McClean 45 
at the FitzwilUam Museum, Cambridge. 

^ MS. 136 (T. 6. 18). See J. Young and P. Henderson Aitkin, Cat. of 
MSS. in the Lib. of the Hunterian Museum in the Univ. of Glasgow (1908). 
p. 124. In the introduction the book is conjectured to have belonged to the 

244 EDUCATION [c: 

The books known to have been in the possession of nui 
throw, as will be seen, but a dim light upon the education; 
attainments of their owners. More specific evidence must t 
sought in bishops' registers, and in such references to the sta1 
of learning in nunneries as occur in the works of contemporar 
writers. It is clear that nuns were expected to be "literate' 
bishops sending new inmates to convents occasionally assui 
their prospective heads that the girls are able to undertake th 
duties of their new state^. What to be sufficiently lettere 
meant, from the convent point of view, appears in injunction 
sent to the Premonstratensian house of Irford, forbidding th 
reception of any nun "save after such fashion as they ar 
received at Irford and Brodholme, to wit that they be abl 
to read and to sing, as is contained in the statute of th 
order"2; and again in injunctions sent by Bishop Gray to ElstOA 
about 1432: 

We enjoin and charge you the abbess and who so shall succeed you., 
that henceforvvard you admit no one to be a nun of the said monaster 
...unless she be taught in song and reading and the other thing 
requisite herein, or probably may be easily instructed within a shoi 

Further light is thrown on the question by an episode in th 
hfe of Thomas de la Mare, Abbot of St Albans from 134' 
to 1396. At that time the subordinate nunnery of St Mary d 
Pre consisted of two grades of inmates, nuns and sisters, wh 
were never on good terms. The Abbot accordingly transformei 
the sisters into nuns and ordained that no more sisters shouL 
be received, but only "hterate nuns." But hitherto the nun 
also had been iUiterate; "they said no service, but in the plac 
of the Hours they said certain Lord's Prayers and Angeh 
Salutations." The Abbot therefore ordered that they should b 

Carthusian monastery at Sheen, where it obviously was written; but th 
reference to"sorores et ffratres" and the name of Elizabeth Gibbs (se 
Blunt, Myroure of Oiire Ladye (E.E.T.S.), p. xxiii), show clearly that : 
belonged to Syon. 

1 So John of Pontoise sends Juliana de Spina to Romsey on the occasio 
of his consecration (1282), with the recommendation "Ejusdem Juliar 
competenter ad hujusmodi officii debitum litterate laudabile propositui 
special! gracia prosequentes, etc." Reg. J. de Pontissara (Cant, and Yor 
Soc), I, p. 240. Cp. ih. p. 252. 

^ Collectanea Anglo-Praemonsiratensia, u, p. 267. 

' Line. Visit. 1, p. 53. 


taught the service and that in future they should observe the 
canonical hours, saying them without chanting, but singing the 
offices for the dead at certain times. Since they had apparently 
no books, from which to read the services, he gave them six 
or seven ordinals, belonging to the Abbey of St Albans, which 
caused not a little annoyance among the monks. In order that 
nuns should not be rashly and easily admitted, he ordered that 
henceforth all who entered the house were to profess the rule 
of St Benedict in writing^. 

The requirements seem to be that the nun should be able 
to take part in the daily offices in the quire, for which reading 
and singing were essential. It was not, it should be noted, 
essential to write, though Abbot Thomas de la Mare required 
the nuns of St Mary de Pre to profess the rule in writing and 
about 1330 the nuns of Sopwell (another dependency of St Albans) 
were enjoined by the commissary of a previous Abbot to give 
their votes for a new Prioress in writing 2. Nevertheless, strange 
as this may appear to many who are wont to credit the nuns 
with teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and a number of other 
accomplishments to their pupils, it is probable that some of the 
nuns of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were unable to 
write. The form of profession of three novices at Rusper in 1484 
has survived and ends with the note "Et quehbet earum fecit 
tale signum crucis manu sua propria ^"^ which might possibly 
imply that these nuns could not write their names. It is 
significant that the official business of convents, their annual 
accounts and any certificates which they might have to draw 
up, were done by professional clerks, or sometimes by their 
chaplains. Payment to the clerk who made the account occurs 
regularly in their account rolls; and the Visitations of Bishop 
Alnwick, to which reference will be made below, show that they 

^ Gesta Abbatum (Rolls Ser. 1867), 11, pp. 410—2. But professions were 
often written by others, and the postulant only put his or her cross. So also 
with the vote. 

^ lb. II, p. 213. This was a not uncommon method of voting. It is clear, 
too, from prohibitions of letter- writing in various injunctions that nuns 
could sometimes write. 

' Sussex Archaeol. Coll. v, p. 256. Compare the editor's note on the 
education of Christina von Stommeln : " Simul cum psalterio videtur tantum 
didicisse linguae latinae, quantum satis erat non solum ilU legendo, sed etiam 
epistolis ad se Latine scriptis pro parte intelligendis, ac vicissim dictandis : 
nam scribendi ignoram fuisse habeo." Acta SS. Junii, t. iv, p. 279. 


were often completely at a loss, when writing had to be done and 
there was no clerk to do it. 

Again it would seem clear that the nun who was fully 
qualified to "bear the burden of the choir" ought to be able 
to understand what she read, as well as to read it, and this raises 
at once the study of Latin in nunneries. Here again the nuns do 
not emerge very well from inquiry. Some there were no doubt 
who knew a little Latin, even in the fourteenth, fifteenth and 
sixteenth centuries; but the more the inquirer studies con- 
temporary records, the more he is driven to conclude that the 
majority of nuns during this period knew no Latin; they must 
have sung the offices by rote and though they may have under- 
stood, it is to be feared that the majority of them could not 
construe even a Pater Noster, an Ave or a Credo. Let us take 
the evidence for the different centuries in turn. The language 
of visitation injunctions affords some clue to the knowledge of 
the nuns. It must be remembered that throughout the whole 
period Latin was always the learned and ecclesiastical language; 
and the communications addressed by a bishop to the monastic 
houses of his district, notices of visitation, mandates and in- 
junctions would normally be in Latin; and when he was ad- 
dressing monks they were in fact almost always in this tongue. 
After Latin the language next in estimation was French. This 
had been the universal language of the upper class and up till 
the middle of the fourteenth century it was still par excellence 
the courtly tongue. But it was rapidly ceasing to be a language 
in general use and the turning-point is marked by a statute of 
1362, which ordains that henceforth all pleas in the law courts 
shall be conducted in English, since the French language "is too 
unknown in the said realm." At the close of the century even 
the upper classes were ceasing to speak French and the English 
ambassadors to France in 1404 had to beseech the Grand Council 
of France to answer them in Latin, French being "likeHebrew" 
to themi. In the fifteenth century French was a mere educa- 
tional adornment, which could be acquired by those who could 
get teachers. 

The linguistic learning of English nuns at different periods 
was similar to that of the gentry outside the convent. It was not 

1 Jusserand, A Literary History of the English People, I, pp. 239-40. 


possible after the beginning of the fourteenth century (perhaps 
even during the last half of the thirteenth century) to assume 
in them that acquaintance with Latin, the learned and ecclesias- 
tical tongue, which was generally assumed in their brothers 
the monks. Their learning was similar to that of contemporary 
laymen of their class, rather than of contemporary monks ; and 
it went through exactly the same phases as did the coronation 
oath. About 1311 the King's oath occurs in Latin among the 
State documents, with the note appended that "if the King 
were illiterate" he was to swear in French, as Edward II did 
in 1307; but in 1399 when Henry IV claimed the throne, he 
claimed it in English, " In the name of the Fadir, Son and Holy 
Gost, I Henry of Lancastre, chalenge ]?is Rewme of Yngland"^. 
Similarly towards the close of the thirteenth century the English 
bishops begin to write to their nuns in French, because they 
are no longer "literate," in the sense of understanding Latin. 
Throughout this century the nuns are able to speak the courtly 
tongue; they use it for their petitions; and Chaucer's Prioress 
boasts it among her accomplishments at the close of the century, 

And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly 
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe, 
For French of Paris was to her unknowe. 

But French, hke Latin, is beginning to die away. It hardly ever 
occurs in petitions after the end of the century; and in the 
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Bishops almost invariably 
send their injunctions to the nuns in EngUsh. The majority of 
nuns during these two centuries would seem to have understood 
neither French nor Latin 2. 

The evidence of the bishops' registers is worth considering 
in more detail. The bishops were genuinely anxious that the 
reforms set forth in their injunctions should be carried out by 
the nuns, and they were therefore at considerable pains to send 
the injunctions in language which the nuns could understand. 
There are few surviving injunctions belonging to the thirteenth 
century ; and their evidence is missed. Archbishop Walter Giffard 

1 Jusserand, op. cit. 1, p. 236. 

2 It is interesting to find the Master-General of the Dominicans in 1431 
giving Jane Fisher, a nun of Dartford, leave to have a master to instruct 
her in grammar and the Latin tongue. Jarrett, The English Dominicans , 
p. II. 


in 1268^ and Archbishop Newark in 1298^ write to the nuns 
of Swine in Latin, a language which they seem to have employed 
habitually when writing to nunneries. Archbishop Peckham 
sometimes writes to the Godstow nuns in Latin (1279) and 
sometimes in French (1284)^; it is to be noted that his French 
letter is of a more familiar type. Bishop Cantilupe of Hereford 
writes about 1277 to the nuns of Lymbrook in Latin, but his 
closing words raise considerable doubt as to whether an under- 
standing of Latin can be generally assumed in nunneries at this 
period, for he says "you are to cause this our letter to be 
expounded to you several times in the year by your penancers, 
in the French or English tongue, whichever you know best"*. 
The evidence for the next century is even less ambiguous, 
for nearly all injunctions are in French and sometimes it is 
specifically mentioned that the nuns do not understand Latin. 
Bishop Norbury in 1331 translates his injunctions to Fairwell 
into French^, because the nuns do not understand the original 
in Latin, and Bishop Robert de Stretton, writing to the same 
house in 1367, orders his decree to be "read and explained in 
the vulgar tongue by some literate ecclesiastical person on the 
day after its receipt"*. Bishop Stapeldon's interesting injunc- 
tions to Polsloe and Canonsleigh in 1319 are in French, but he 
seems to assume some knowledge of Latin in the nuns, for he 
orders that if it be necessary to break silence in places where 
silence is ordained, speech should be held in Latin, though not 
in grammatically constructed sentences, but in isolated words '. 
In 1311 Bishop Woodlock sending a set of Latin injunctions 
to the great Abbey of Romsey, announces that he has caused 
them to be translated into French, that the nuns may more 

^ Reg. Walter Giffard (Surtees Soc), pp. 147—8. 

^ Reg. John le Romeyn, etc. (Surtees Soc), 11, pp. 222-4. 

" Reg. Epis. J. Peckham (Rolls Ser.), iii, pp. 845-52. 

■• Reg. Thome de Cantilupo (Cant, and York Soc. and Cantilupe Soc), 
p. 202. 

= Reg. R. de Norbury (Wm. Salt Archaeol. Soc. Coll. i), p. 257. 

" Reg. R. de Stretton [ib. New Series, viii), p. iig. 

' Reg. W. de Stapeldon, p. 316. See below, p. 286. In the same year 
Archbishop Melton writes to the nuns of Sinningthwaite that in all writings 
under the common seal a faithful clerk is to be employed and the deed is 
to be sealed in the presence of the whole convent, the clerk reading the 
deed plainly in the mother tongue and explaining it. V.C.H. Yorks. in, 
p. 177. 


easily understand them^; but Wykeham writes to them in Latin 
in 13872. In the Lincoln diocese during this century the custom 
of the bishops varies. Gynewell writes to Heynings and to 
Godstow in French, but to Elstow in Latin^; Bokyngham writes 
to both Heynings and Elstow in Latin, but in ordering the nuns 
of Elstow in 1387 to keep silence at due times, he adds " Et 
vulgare gallicum addiscentes inter se eo utantur coUoquentes " *, 
a significant contrast to Stapeldon's recommendation of Latin 
in similar circumstances some seventy years earlier. 

When we pass from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century it 
is clear that even French was becoming an unknown tongue to 
the nuns; nearly all injunctions are from this time forward 
written in Enghsh. At Redhngfield in 1427, the seven nuns and 
two novices were assembled in the chapter house, where the 
deputy visitor read his commission, first in Latin and then in 
the vulgar tongue, in order that the nuns might better under- 
stand it ^ It is true that Bishops Flemyng and Gray send Latin 
injunctions to Elstow and Delapre Abbeys in 1422 and 1433 
respectively; but Flemyng orders "that the premises, all and 
sundry, be pubhshed and read openly and in the vulgar mother 
tongue eight times a year"*, and Gray writes that his injunc- 
tions are to be translated into the mother tongue and fastened 
in some conspicuous place '. The best evidence of all for the state 
of learning in nunneries during the first half of the fifteenth 
century is to be found in the invaluable records of Alnwick's 
visitations of the Lincoln diocese. Now it should be noted that 
when Alnwick visited houses of monks or canons, the sermon, 
which was generally preached on such occasions by one of the 
learned clerics who accompanied him, was invariably preached 
in Latin. Moreover, all injunctions sent to male houses after 
visitation were sent in Latin also. The assumption still was that 
these monasteries were homes of learning and acquainted with 
the language of learning. With the nunneries it was otherwise. 
The sermons were always preached "in the vulgar tongue" and 

1 Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, p. 105. ^ New Coll. MS. f. 84. 

3 Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Gynewell, ff. 34. 139^, loorf. 
« lb. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, ff. 343 (Elstow), 397 (Heynings). 
E V.C.H. Suffolk, 11, p. 83. » Line. Visit, i, p. 52. 

' lb. I, p. 45. At Kyme and Wellow, houses of canons, however, the 
injunctions are also to be expounded in the mother tongue. 


the injunctions were always sent in English. It was not even 
pretended that the nuns would understand Latin. Moreover 
it is quite plain that when the preliminary notices of visitation 
had been sent in Latin, they had been very imperfectly under- 
stood; and that when it was necessary for a Prioress herself to 
draw up a certificate in writing, she was often quite unable to 
do so. 

A few extracts from Alnwick's records will illustrate the 
complete ignorance of Latin and general illiteracy in these houses. 
At Ankerwyke (1441) it is noted: 

And then when request had been made of the prioress by the reverend 
father for the certificate of his mandate conveyed to the said prioress 
for such visitation, the same prioress, instead of the certificate delivered 
the original mandate itself to the said reverend father, affirming that 
she did not understand the mandate itself, nor had she any man of 
skill or other lettered person to instruct what she should do in this 

At Markyate (1442), when the same certificate was asked for, 
the Prioress 

said that she had not a clerk who was equipped for writing such a 
certificate, on the which head she submitted herself to my lord's 
favour and then showed my lord in heu of a certificate the original 
mandate itself and the names of the nuns who had been summoned^. 

Similarly the Prioress of Fosse showed the original mandate in 
place of the certificate, and the Prioresses of St Michael's Stamford 
and Rothwell had failed to draw up the certificate^. The Prioress 
of Gokewell (1440) was said to be "exceedingly simple," all the 
temporalities of the house being ruled by a steward; she also 
declared that "she knows not how to compose a formal certificate, 
in that she has no lettered persons of her counsel who are skilled 
in this case," and she had been unable to find the document 
reciting the confirmation of her election *. The poor convent of 
Langley seems to have been reduced to complete confusion by 
the episcopal mandate. The Prioress 

says that she received my lord's mandate on the feast of St Denis 
last. Interrogated whether she has a certificate touching execution 
thereof, she says no, because she did not understand it, nor did her 
chaplain also, to whom she showed it; concerning the which she 
surrendered herself to my lord's favour. Wherefore, when the original 

1 Line. Visit. 11, p. i. ^ Alnwick's Visit. MS. £. 6. 

' Line. Visit. 11, p. 91; Alnwick's Visit. MS. ff. 83, 38. 
' Line. Visit. 11, p. 117. 


mandate had been delivered to my lord and read through in the 
vulgar tongue, my lord asked her if she had executed it. She says 
yes, as regards the summons of herself and her sisters. ...Interrogated 
if she has the foundation charter of the house and who is the founder, 
she says that Sir Wilham Pantolfe founded the house, but because 
they are unversed in letters they cannot understand the writings^. 

It is unnecessary to multiply the evidence of visitation records 
for the rest of the fifteenth and for the early sixteenth century: 
the general effect is to show us nuns who know only the English 
language^. Let us turn to the interesting corroborative evidence 
provided by those who were at pains to make translations for 
their use. It must be admitted that this evidence only confirms 
the suggestion made above that the nuns often did not under- 
stand the very services which they sang, let alone the Latin 
version of their rule, or the Latin charters by which they held 
their lands. That they often sang the services uncomprehendingly 
like parrots is actually stated by Sir David Lyndesay, the 
Scottish poet, in his Dialog concerning the Monarche (1553) ■ He 
apologises for writing in his native tongue, unlike those clerks, 
who wish to prohibit the people from reading even the scriptures 
for themselves, and adds 

Tharefore I thynk one gret dtrisioun 
To heir thir Nunnis & Systeris nycht and day 
Sjmgand and sayand psalmes and orisoun, 
Nocht vnderstandyng quhat thay syng nor say, 
Bot lyke one stirljoig or ane Papingay 
Quhilk leirnit ar to speik be lang usage 
Thame I compair to byrdis in ane cage^. 

Several translations of the rule of St Benet were made for 
the special use of nuns, who knew no Latin. A northern metrical 
version of the early fifteenth century explains 

Menkes and als all leryd men 

In Latin may it lyghtly ken, 

And wytt tharby how they saU wyrk 

To sarue god and haly kyrk. 

1 Line. Visit. 11, p. 174. 

^ Archbishop Lee's visitations of the York diocese on the eve of the 
Dissolution (1534-5) are typical. The injunctions sent to the nunneries of 
Sinningthwaite, Nunappleton and Esholt (Yorks. Archaeol. Journ. xvi, 
pp. 440, 443, 451) are in English, but those sent to the houses of monks and 
canons are all in Latin. 

' Sir David Lyndesay's Poems, ed. Small, Hall and Murray (E.E.T.S- 
2nd ed. 1883), p. 21. 


Bott tyll women to male it couth. 
That lens no latyn in thax youth. 
In inghs is it ordand here. 
So that thay may it lyghtly lere^. 

About a century later, in 15 17, Richard Fox, the Bishop of 
Winchester, published for the benefit of the nuns of his diocese 
another English translation of the Rule of St Benedict. In the 
preface he rehearses how nuns are professed under the Rule and 
are bound to read, learn and understand it : 

and also after their profession they should not onely in them selfe 
kepe observe execute and practise the said rule but also teche other 
and heir sisters the same, and so moche that for the same intent they 
daily rede and cause to be rede some parte of the sayd rule by one of 
the sayd sisters amonges them selfe as well in their Chapiter House 
after the redinge of the Martyrologe as some tyme in their Fraitur 
in tyme of refections and collacions, at the which reding is always don 
in the latin tonge, whereof they have no knowledge nor understandinge 
but be utterly ignorant of the same, whereby they do not only lose 
their tyme but also renne into the evident danger and perill of the 
perdicion of their soules. 

He adds that in order to save the souls of his nuns, and in par- 
ticular to ensure that novices understand the Rule before pro- 

so that none of them shall nowe afterward probably say that she 
wyste not what she professed, as we knowe by experience that some 
of them have sayd in tyme passed, for these causes at thinstant 
requeste of our ryght dere and well-beloved daughters in oure Lorde 
Jhesu, the Abbasses of the Monasteries of Rumsay, Wharwel, Seynt 
Maries within the Citie of Winchester and the Prioresses of Wintnay, 
our right religious diocesans, we have translated the sayd rule unto 
our moders tonge; comune, playne rounde EngUshe, easy and redy 
to be understande by the sayde devoute religiouse women^. 

The inconvenience of not being able to read the foundation 
charter and other legal documents of the house, as confessed by 
the Prioress of Langley at Alnwick's visitation, was very great; 
and about 1460 Alice Henley, the Abbess of Godstow, caused 

1 Three Middle Eng. Versions of the Rule of St Benet (E.E.T.S. 1902), 
p. 48. 

On the other hand the Caxton abstract at the end of the century is 
translated " for men and wymmen, of the habyte therof, the whiche vnder- 
stande lytyll laten or none." lb. p. 119. 

' The preface is quoted in The Register of Richard Fox while Bishop of 
Bath and Wells, with a Life of Bishop Fox, ed. E. C. Batten (1889), pp. 102-4. 


a translation to be made of the Latin register, in which were 
copied all the charters of her abbey. The translator's preface 
to the work is interesting: 

The wyseman tawht hys chyld gladly to rede bokys and hem well 
vndurstonde for, in defaute of vndyrstondyng, is ofttymes caused 
neclygence, hurte, harme and hynderaunce, as experyence prevyth 
in many a place. And for as muche as women of relygyone in redynge 
bokys of latyn, byn excusyd of grate vndurstandyng, where it is 
not her modyr tonge ; Therf ore, how be hyt that they wolde rede her 
bokys of remembraunce of her munymentys wryte in latyn, for 
defaute of undurstondyng they toke ofte tymes grete hurt and 
hyndraunce ; and, what for defaute of trewe lernyd men that all tymes 
be not redy hem to teche and counsayl, and feere also and drede to 
shewe her euydence opynly (that oftjmtyme hath causyd repentaunce), 
Hyt wer ryht necessary, as hyt semyth to the undyrstondyng of 
suche relygyous women, that they myght haue, out of her latyn 
bokys, sum wrytynge in her modyr tonge, wher-by they might haue 
bettyr knowlyge of her munymentys and more clerely yeue infor- 
macyon to her serauntys, rent gedurarys, and receyuowrs, in the 
absent of her lernyd councell. Wher-fore, a poore brodur and wel- the goode Abbas of Godstowe, Dame Alice henley, and to 
all her couent, the whych byn for the more party in Englyssh bokys 
well y-lemyd, hertyly desyryng the worship, profyt and welfare of 
that deuoute place, that, for lak of vndurstondjmg her munymentys 
sholde in no damage of her l3?flod huraftur fallyn. In the worship of 
our lady and seynt John Baptist patron of thys seyd monastery, the 
sentence for the more partyre of her munymentys conteynd in the 
boke of her regystr in latyn, aftyr the same forme and ordyr of the 
seyd boke, hath purposyd with goddys grace to make, aftur hys 
conceyt, fro latjm into Englyssh, sentencyosly, as foloweth thys 
S5niiple translacion'. 

It will be noticed that the benevolent translator of this 
Godstow register says that the nuns are for the most part well 
learned in EngUsh books. The same impression is given by the 
translations which were made for the nuns of Syon. The most 
famous of these is the Myroure of Oure Ladye, written for the 
nuns by Thomas Gascoigne (1403-58) and first printed in 1530. 
This book contains a devotional treatise on divine service, with 
a translation and explanation of the "Hours" and "Masses" 
of our Lady, as they were used at Syon. The author explains 
his purpose thus : 

Forasmoche as many of you, though ye can synge and rede, yet ye 
can not se what the meanynge therof ys ; therefore to the onely worshyp 

1 Eng. Reg. of Godstow Nunnery (E.E.T.S.), pp. 25-6. 

254 EDUCATION [ch. 

and praysyng of oure lorde Jesu chryste and of hys moste mercyfull 
mother oure lady and to the gostly comforte and profyte of youre 
soules, I haue drawen youre legende and all youre seruyce in to Eng- 
lyshe, that ye shulde se by the vnderstondyng therof, how worthy and 
holy praysynge of oure gloryous Lady is contente therin & the more 
deuoutely and knowyngly syngeyt & rede yt and say yttoherworshjrp. 

He adds that he has explained the various parts of the divine 
service for "symple soulles to vnderstonde," but that he has 
translated few psalms, "for ye may haue them of Rycharde 
hampoules drawynge, and out of Englysshe bibles, if ye haue 
lysence therto''^. 

From a passage in the Myroure it appears that the sisters 
were accustomed to spend some of their time in reading and 
advice is given to them as to the sort of books to read and the 
way in which to profit by them ; from this it is quite clear that 
secular learning had no place among them, their reading being 
confined to works of ghostly edification 2. It was their ignorance 
of Latin which caused the insertion of English rubrics in the 
Latin Processionale of the house and which inspired Richard 
Whytford, one of the brothers, to translate the splendid Marti- 
logium, which is now in the British Museum, "for the edificacyon 
of certayn rehgyous persones unlerned that dayly dyd rede the 
same martiloge in Latyn, not understandynge what they redde " ; 
his translation was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1526^. 
Gascoigne's mention of English bibles is interesting. Miss 
Deanesly, in her study of The Lollard Bible, has shown that "it 
is likely that Enghsh nuns were the most numerous orthodox 
users of Enghsh bibles between 1408 and 1526," but that the 
evidence for this use is slight and drawn almost entirely from 
Syon and Barking, two large and important houses *. Her con- 
clusion is that 

it was not the ca^e that the best instructed nuns used Latin Bibles 
and the most ignorant English ones: but that the best instructed 

1 The Myroure of Oure Ladye (E.E.T.S.), pp. 2-3. ^ /j pp gj g 

' lb. pp. xliv-xlvi; Eckenstein, op. cit. p. 395. Wynkyn de Worde's 
edition was reprinted for the Henry Bradshaw Society in 1893. 

* Deanesly, The Lollard Bible, pp. 320, 336—7. It may be noted as of 
some interest that when in 1528 a wealthy London merchant was im- 
prisoned for distributing Tyndale's books and for similar practices, he 
pleaded that the abbess of Denney, Elizabeth Throgmorton, had wished 
to borrow Tyndale's Enchiridion and that he had lent it to her. Dugdale, 
Mon. VI, p. 1549. 


nuns were allowed to use English translations, perhaps by themselves, 
perhaps to help in the understanding of the Vulgate, while the smaller 
nunneries and least instructed nuns almost certainly did not have 
them at all. 

This goes to confirm the conclusion that even in the greatest 
houses, where the nuns were drawn from the highest social 
classes and might be supposed to be best educated, the know- 
ledge of Latin was dying out. 

Other occupations besides reading filled the working hours 
of the nuns and of these spinning and needlework were the most 
important. Most women in the middle ages possessed the art 
of spinning and Aubrey's Old Jacques may have remembered 
aright how "he saw from his house the nuns of the priory 
(Kington St Michael) come forth into the nymph-hay with their 
rocks and wheels to spin," though his memory misled him sorely 
as to the number of these ladies. Sometimes a visitation report 
gives us a glimpse of the nuns at work: at Easebourne in 144 1 
the nuns say that the Prioress "compels her sisters to work 
continually like hired workwomen and they receive nothing 
whatever for their own use from their work, but the prioress 
takes the whole profit "^ and at Catesby in the following year 
a young nun complains that the Prioress "setts her to make 
beds, to sewing and spinning and other tasks "2. Nevertheless 
it does not seem that the nuns were in the habit of spinning 
the wool and flax for their own and their servants' clothes and 
account rolls often contain payments made to hired spinsters, 
as well as to fullers and weavers. 

It is more probable that they busied themselves with needle- 
work and embroidery, which were the usual occupations of ladies 
of gentle birth^. Very few traces have unfortunately survived 
of the work of English nuns. In earlier centuries English needle- 
work had been famous and the nuns had been pre-eminent in 
the making of richly embroidered vestments. In the thirteenth 

' Sussex Arch. Coll. ix, p. 7. 

^ Line. Visit. 11, p. 49. At Bondeville in 1251 Archbishop Eudes Rigaud 
has to forbid the nuns to sell their thread and their spindles to raise money, 
" quod moniales non vendant nee distrahant filum et lor fusees," Reg. Visit. 
Archiepiscopi Roth. ed. Bonnin (1852), p. iii. 

' "Nuns with their needles wrote histories also,'' as Fuller prettily 
says, "that of Christ his passion for their altar clothes, as other Scripture 
(and moe legend) Stories to adorn their houses." Fuller, Church Hist. (ed. 
1837), II, p. 190. 


century, too, English embroidery far surpassed that made in 
other countries and it has been conjectured that "the most 
famous embroidered vestments now preserved in various places 
in Italy are the handiwork of English embroiderers between 1250 
and 1300 though their authorship is not as a rule recognised by 
their present possessors "i. Some of these may have been made 
by nuns; it is thought that the famous Syon cope, for long in 
the possession of the nuns of Syon, may have been made in a 
thirteenth century convent in the neighbourhood of Coventry; 
but such examples of medieval embroidery as have survived 
usually bear no trace of their origin; since a vestment 
cannot be signed like a book and it must be remembered that 
there was a large class of professional " embroideresses " in the 

Some, however, of the splendid vestments and altar cloths 
possessed by the richer nunneries were probably the work of 
the nuns. At Langley in 1485 there were, among other rich 
pieces of embroidery 

liij fronteys (altar f rentals) of grene damaske powdered with swanys 
and egyls, . . .iiij fronteys of blake powdered with swanys and rosys,... 
a vestment of blew silke brodyt complete with all yt longyth to hyt, 
a vestment of grene velwett complete with a crucifixe of silver and 
gylte apon ye amys, a complete vestiment of redvelwet, a vestiment 
of swede (sewed) work complete, a vestiment of blake damaske brod3rrt 
with rosys and sterys, a complete vestiment of white brodyrte with 
redetrewlyps {true-love knots),...] gret cloth (banner) of rede powderyd 
with herts heds and boturfleys...a large coverlet of red and blew with 
rosys and crossys, a tapett of ye same ; j large coverlett of rede and 
yowlowe with flowrs de luce, a tapett of ye same; a large coverlett 
of blew and better blew with swanys and coks, a tapett of ye same; 
a coverlett of grene and yowlowe with borys and draguyns, a tapett of 
ye same;... a coverlett of ostrych fydyxs and crounyd Emmys 
{monogram of the Blessed Virgin Mary) ; a coverlet of grene and yow- 
lowe with vynys and rosys; a coverlet of grene and yowlowe with 
lylys and swannys; a coverlet of blew and white whyl knotts {wheel 
knots) and rosys; a coverlet of red and white with traylest {trellis) 
and Bryds; a coverlet of red and blew with sterrys and white rosys 
in mydste ; a coverlet of yowlowe and grene with egyles and emmys ; 
v coveryngs of bedds, yat hys to sey A coveryng of red saye, a coveryng 
of panes {stripes) of red and grene and white saye, a coveryng of red 

^ J. H. Middleton, Illuminated MSS. (1892), p. 112. On nunnery em- 
broidery at difierent periods see ib. pp. 224-30; but the book must be read 
with great caution. 


and blake saye, a coveryng of red and blew poudyrd with white 
esses and sterys, a blew saye with a red dragne^. 

Many of these embroideries and tapestries were doubtless legacies 
or gifts ; but it is impossible not to picture the white fingers of 
the nuns at work on swans and roses, harts' heads and butterflies, 
stars and true-love knots. One may deduce that the nuns of 
Yorkshire, at least, busied themselves in these pursuits from 
an injunction sent to Nunkeeling, Yedingham and Wykeham in 
1314 that no nun should absent herself from divine service "on 
account of being occupied with silk work " (propter occupacionem 
operis de serico) ^. 

Reference to the sale of embroidery by nuns is surprisingly 
rare in account rolls. The household roll of the Countess of 
Leicester in 1265 contains an item, " Paid to the nuns of Wintney, 
for one cope to be made for the use of Brother J. Angelus by the 
gift of the Countess at Panham Tod."^, which small sum must 
have been a part payment in advance, perhaps towards the 
purchase of materials; the nuns of Gracedieu, too, sold a cope 
to a neighbouring rector for £10, early in the fifteenth century*, 
and on one occasion the cellaress of Barking derived a part of 
her income for the year from the sale of a cope 5, but search 
has revealed no further instances. The nuns also probably made 
little presents for their friends, such as purses (though the 
Gracedieu nuns always bought the purses which they gave to 
their baihff, to Lady Beaumont, or to other visitors) and the 
so-called "blood-bands." In an age when bleeding was the most 

1 Mackenzie Walcott, Inventory of St Mary's Ben. Nunnery at Langley, 
Co. Leic. 1485 (Leic. Architec. Soc. 1872), pp. 3, 4, 

^ V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, 120, 127, 183. Greenfield may have so enjoined 
other houses; the injunctions are not always fully summarised. As to 
nuns' embroidery there is an interesting passage in the thirteenth century 
German poem Helmbrecht by Wernher "the Gardener " : "Old farmer Helm- 
brecht had a son. Young Helmbrecht's yellow locks fell down to his 
shoulders. He tucked them into a handsome silken cap, embroidered with 
doves and parrots and many a picture. This cap had been embroidered by 
a nun who had run away from her convent through a love adventure, as 
happens to so many. From her Helmbrecht's sister GoteUnd had learned 
to embroider and to sew. The girl and her mother had well earned that from 
the nun, for they gave her in pay a calf, and many cheeses and eggs." 
J. Harvey Robinson, Readings in Eur. Hist, i, pp. 418-9, translated from 
Freytag, Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit (1876, 11, pp. 52 ff.). 

^ Manners and Household Expenses (Roxburghe Club 1841), p. 18. 

^ Gasquet, Engl. Monastic Life, p. 170. 

5 Trans. St Paul's Eccles. Soc. vn, pt 11 (1912), p. 54. 

P.N. 17 


common treatment for almost every illness and when monks, in 
particular, were regularly bled several times a year, these little 
bandages were common presents, being sometimes made of silk. 
The author of the Ancren Riwle thus bade his anchoresses 
"make no purses to gain friends therewith, not blodbendes of 
silk, but shape and sew and mend church vestments and poor 
people's clothes "1. The nuns of the diocese of Rouen in the mid- 
thirteenth century were accustomed to knit or embroider silken 
purses, tassels, cushions or needlecases for sale or as gifts, and 
Archbishop Eudes Rigaud was continually forbidding them to 
do any silk work except for church ornament-- There is some 
reason to think that the nuns, then as now, sometimes eked out 
their income by doing fine needlework for ladies of the world, 
though there is no mention of it in nunnery accounts, or indeed in 
any English records. Among the correspondence of Lady Lisle in 
the first half of the sixteenth century, however, are several letters 
to and from a certain Antoinette de Favences at Dunkirk, who 
would appear to have been a nun, for she signs herself sister 
Antoinette de Favences and is addressed by Lady Lisle as 
Madame and Dame. This woman was employed to make caps 
and coifs for Lady Lisle's family and friends and there is much 
correspondence between them as to night-caps which are too 
wide, lozenge-work and such matters; in one letter Lady Lisle 
speaks of sending " i6 rozimbos and 2 half angels of Flanders, 
a Carolus of gold," in payment for the caps^. 

What other accomplishments the nuns may have possessed 
we do not know. They were possibly skilled in herbs and in the 
more simple forms of home medicine and surgery, for it was the 
function of the lady of the manor to know something of these 
things, though doctors were available (for nuns as well as for 
lay folk) in more serious illnesses*. They doubtless bled each 
other as did the monks, else how was the wicked Prioress of 
Kirklees, who slew Robin Hood, so skilled? : 

1 Ancren Riwle, ed. Gasquet, p. 318. ^ See below, p. 655. 

' Wood, Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies, 11, pp. 229-31. 

' Peckham, forbidding the nuns of Barking (1279) to eat or sleep in 
private rooms or to receive mass there, makes an exception for those who 
are seriously ill, ' ' in which case we permit the confessor and the doctor, 
also the father or brother, to have access to them," Reg. Epis. Johannis 
Peckham, i, p. 84. Cf. ib. 11, pp. 652, 663. For nuns and medicine see 
S. Luce, La Jetmesse de Bertrand de Guesclin (1882), p. 10. 


Doun then came Dame Prioress 

Doun she came in that ilk, 
With a pair of blood-irons in her hand, 

Were wrapped all in silk 

She laid the blood-irons to Robin's vein 

Alack the more pitye ! 
And pierc'd the vein and let out the blood 

That full red was to see. 

There is an occasional brief reference to the recreation of nuns 
in their "seynys" in visitations^, but the precaution was less 
necessary and less frequent than it was in houses of monks 2. No 
doubt, also, the nuns sometimes nursed their boarders, some of 
whom must have been old and ailing; wills are occasionally 
dated from nunneries^. The nuns of Romsey had a hospital 
attached to the house, in which were received as sisters any 
parents and relatives of the nuns, who were poor and ill*, but 
this does not prove that the nuns nursed them, and references 
in visitation reports show that even sick nuns were often looked 
after by lay servants in the infirmary, or if permanently disabled, 
occupied a separate room, with a separate maid to attend them. 
It is not likely that the nuns left their convents, save very 

' At Romsey Abbey a pittance of sixpence was due to each nun "when 
blood is let" (see Bishop John de Pontoise's injunctions in 1302 and those 
of Bishop Woodlock in 131 1, both of which refer to the payments not having 
been made). Bishop Woodlock enjoined that "Nuns who have been bled 
shall be allowed to enter the cloister if they wish." Liveing, Records of 
Romsey Abbey, pp. 100, 103, 104. In 1338 Abbot Michael of St Albans orders 
all the nuns of Sopwell to attend the service of prime, " horspris les malades 
et les seynes." Dugdale, Mon. iii, p. 366. At Nuncoton in 1440 the sub- 
prioress deposed that "the infirm, the weakminded and they that are in 
their eat in the convent cellar." Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 71 rf. 
Bishop Stapeldon forbids the nuns of Polsloe in 1319 to enter convent 
offices outside the cloistral precincts "pour estre seigne ou pur autre en- 
cheson feynte." Reg. Stapeldon, ed. Hingeston-Randolph, p. 317. 

2 On the custom of periodical bleeding in monasteries see J. W. Clark, 
The Observances... at Barnwell, Introd. pp. Ixi, ff. It is interesting to note that 
medieval treatises on the diseases of women occassionally refer specifically 
to nuns, e.g. in a fourteenth century English MS. a certain " worschipfuU 
sirop " for use in cases of anaemia is said to be "for ladyes & for nunnes 
and other also |)at ben delicate." Bnt. Mus. MS. Sloane 2463, f. 198 v". 

^ E.g. Nicholaa de Fulham dates her will in 1327 from Clerkenwell and 
leaves certain rents for life to Joan her sister, a nun there. Sharpe, Cal. of 
Wills enrolled in Court of Husting, i, p. 324. The will of Elizabeth Medlay 
"of the house of St Clement's in Clementthorpe " directs her body to be 
buried in the conventual church, bequeathes legacies to the high altar, the 
Prioress and each nun there and appoints dame Margaret Delaryver, prioress, 
as executor (1470). V.C.H. Yorks. ni, p. 130. 

* New Coll. MS. fE. 88, 88^°. 



occasionally, to undertake sick-nursing; this would have been 
against the spirit of their rule, for their main business was not 
(as was that of the sisters who looked after spitals) to care for 
the sick, but to hve enclosed in their houses, following the 
prescribed round of church services. It is however of interest 
that the will of Sir Roger Salwayn, knight of York (1420) con- 
tains this legacy: "Also I will that the Nunne that kepid me 
in my seknes haue ij nobles, and that ther be gif into the hous 
that she wonnes in xxs, for to syng and pray for me''^. Nuns 
may have emerged sometimes to nurse friends and relatives, 
whose sick-beds they were always allowed to attend; but there 
is no documentary evidence for the belief of modern writers, who 
would fain turn the nun into a district visitor, smoothing the 
pillows of all who ailed in her native village. 

These then were the educational attainments of the English 
nuns in the later middle ages: reading and singing the services 
of the church, sometimes but not always writing, Latin very 
rarely after the thirteenth century, French very rarely after the 
fourteenth century; needlework and embroidery; and perhaps 
that elementary knowledge of physic, which was the possession 
of most ladies of their class. It was, in fact, very little more than 
the education possessed by laywomen of the same social rank 
outside and there is little trace of anything approaching scholar- 
ship. The study of the education of the nuns during this period 
leads naturally to one of the most vexed questions in the field 
of monastic history, the extent to which the nunneries acted 
as girls' schools. There is no doubt that every nunnery was 
prepared to educate young girls who entered in order to take 
the veil; if the nunnery were fairly large these scolae internae 
probably included several novices at a time. At Ankerwyke in 
1441 three young nuns complained that they had no governess 
to instruct them in "reading, song and religious observance," 
and mention is made of three other sisters "of tender age and 
slender discretion, seeing that the eldest of them is not more than 
thirteen years of age " ; the Bishop appointed a nun to be their 
teacher, "enjoining her to perform the charge laid upon her and 
to instruct them in good manners " ^ Similarly at Thetf ord, where 

^ The Fifty Earliest Wills in the Court of Probate, ed. F. J. Furnivall 
(E.E.T.S.), p. 54. But she may have been a sister from a hospital. 
' Line. Visit. 11, pp. 4, 5, 6. 


(In the bottom left hand corner the mistress of the novices, with birch in hand, is 
instructing two young novices; in the bottom right hand corner the abbess and a nun 
are at prayer.) 


there were three novices in 1526, the Bishop found "non habent 
eruditricem "i. At the larger houses, such as Romsey, the magistra 
noviciarum was a regular obedientiary^. 

The vexed question, however, does not concern these schools 
for novices. It has been the custom, not only of writers on 
monasticism but also of the man in the street, to assume that 
the nunneries were almost solely responsible for the education 
of girls in the middle ages. There was little evidence for the 
assumption, but it was always made, and until the combined 
attack made upon it in 1910 by Mr Coulton and Mr Leach it 
was unchallenged^. With the pubhcation of bishops' registers, 
however, we have something more definite to go upon and it 
is now possible to come to some sort of conclusion, based on the 
evidence of visitation injunctions, account rolls and other mis- 
cellaneous sources. This conclusion may be summarised as follows. 
It was a fairly general custom among the EngUsh nuns, in the 
two and a half centuries before the Dissolution, to receive 
children for education. But there are four limitations, within 
which and only within which, this conclusion is true. Fi>s^,that 
by no means all nunneries took children and those which did 
take them seldom had large schools; secondly, that the children 

1 Visit, of Dioc. Norwich (Camden Soc), p. 243. 

^ Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, -pp. 226, 236. William ofWykeham in 
1387 ordered that three or four at least of the more discreet nuns of this large 
abbey, "in regula sancti benedicti et obseruanciis regularibus suf&cienter 
erudite" should be chosen to instruct the younger nuns in these matters. 
New Coll. MS. f . 86. At St Mary's, Winchester, in 1 501 , besides Margaret Legh, 
mistress of the novices, there was Agnes Cox, senior teacher (dogmatista) . 
V.C.H. Hants. 11, p. 124. At Elstow in 1421-2 the bishop ordered "That 
a more suitable nun be deputed and ordained to be precentress; and that 
elder nuns, if they shall be capable and fit for such offices, be preferred to 
younger." Line. Visit. I, p. 50. Dean Kentwode's injunction to St Helen's 
Bishopsgate in 1432 runs : "That ye ordeyne and chese on of yowre sustres, 
honest, abille and cunnyng of discretyone, the whiche can, may and schall 
have the charge of techyng and informacyone of yowre sustres that be 
uncunnyng, for to teche hem here service and the rule of here religione." 
Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 554. 

' The controversy was roused by an article by Mr J. E. G. de Mont- 
morency entitled '"The Medieval Education of Women in England" in 
the Journal of Education (June, 1909), pp. 427-31. This was challenged by 
Mr Coulton, loc. cit. (July, 1910), pp. 456-7; see the correspondence passim, 
especially the two articles by Mr A. F. Leach, loc. cit. (Oct. and Dec. 1910), 
pp. 667-9, 838-41. The subject was afterwards treated with great erudition 
by Mr Coulton in a paper read before the International Congress of Historical 
Studies in 1913, reprinted wath notes as Monastic Schools in the Middle Ages 
{Medieval Studies, x, 1913). 


who thus received a convent education were drawn exclusively 
from the upper and the wealthy middle classes, from people, 
that is to say, of birth and wealth; thirdly, that the practice 
was a purely financial expedient on the part of the nuns, at first 
forbidden, afterwards restricted and always frowned upon by 
the bishops, who regarded it as subversive of discipline; and 
fourthly, that the education which the children received from 
the nuns, so far as book-learning as distinct from nurture is 
concerned, was extremely exiguous. In fine, though nunneries 
did act as girls' schools, they certainly did not educate more 
than a small proportion even of the children of the upper classes, 
and the education which they gave them was limited by their 
own limitations^. 

That the custom of receiving schoolgirls was fairly general 
appears from the wide area over which notices of such children 
are spread. The references range in date from 1282 to 1537; they 
give us, if a doubtful reference to King's Mead, Derby, be 
accepted, the names of forty-nine convents, which at one time 
or other had children in residence. These convents are situated 
in twenty-one counties. The greater number of references 
naturally occur in those dioceses for which the episcopal registers 
are most complete ; Yorkshire affords fifteen names and two which 
are doubtful; Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Buckingham- 
shire, Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire and Leicester- 
shire, counties in the large Lincoln diocese, afford seventeen 
between them, five from Lincolnshire and two from each of the 
others. These references do not prove that the houses in question 
had continuously throughout their career a school for girls; 
sometimes only one or two children are mentioned and usually 
the evidence concerns but a single year out of two and a half 
centuries. Sometimes, however, a happy chance has preserved 
several references to the same house, spread over a longer period, 
from which it is perhaps not too rash to conclude that it was the 
regular practice of that house to receive children. For Elstow, 
for instance, there is an early reference to a boy of five sent 
there for education by St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, towards the 
close of the twelfth century. In 1359 Bishop Gynewell prohibited 

^ For the rest of this chapter I shall not give full references in foot- 
notes, because they can easily be traced in Note B, p. 568 below. 


all boarders there, except girls under ten and boys under six. In 
1421 Bishop Flemyng prohibited all except children under twelve 
and in 1432 Bishop Gray altered this to girls under fourteen 
and boys under ten, and children are mentioned at Alnwick's 
visitation in 1442. Similarly at Godstow there are references 
to children in 1358, 1445 and 1538, at Esholt in Yorkshire in 
I3i5> 1318 and 1537, at Sopwell in 1446 and 1537, at Heynings 
in 1347, 1387 and 1393, at Burnham in 1434 and 1519. 

The mention of boys in these references needs perhaps some 
further emphasis, for it is not usually recognised that the nun- 
neries occasionally acted as dame-schools for very young boys. 
"Abstinence the abbesse myn a.b.c. me tau3te," says Piers 
Plowman, "And conscience com aftur and kennide me betere." 
It is true that a Cistercian statute of 1256-7 forbade the educa- 
tion of boys in nunneries of that order^, but the ordinance soon 
became a dead letter, and five of the convents at which Alnwick 
found schoolboys (c. 1445) were Cistercian houses. Boys were 
specifically forbidden at Wherwell in 1284, at Heynings in 1359 
and at Nuncoton in 1531, which argues that they were then 
present, and they are mentioned at Romsey (1311), at five 
Yorkshire convents (1314-17), at Burnham (1434), at Lymbrook 
(1437), at Swaffham Bulbeck (1483) and at Redlingfield (1514), a 
chronologically and geographically wide range of houses. Occa- 
sionally some details as to a particular boy may be gleaned; the 
five year old Robert de Noyon, sent by Bishop Hugh to Elstow 
"to be taught his letters," the two Tudor boys commended to 
Katharine de la Pole, the noble Abbess of Barking; the little son 
and heir of Sir John Stanley, who made his will in 1527 and then 
became a monk, leaving the boy to be brought up until twelve 
years of age by another Abbess of Barking, after which he was 
to pass to the care of the Abbot of Westminster; and Cromwell's 
son Gregory and his little companion, sent to be supervised, 
though not taught by Margaret Vernon, Prioress of Little 
Marlow^. But as a rule the boys in nunneries were very young; 
it was not considered decorous for them to stay with the nuns 
later than their ninth or tenth year; the bishop forbade it and 

1 Cistercian Statutes, 1256-7, ed. J. T. Fowler (reprinted from Yorks. 
Archaeol. Journ.), p. 105. 

" Probably, however, after the dissolution of her house. 


besides, the education which the good sisters could give them 
would not have been considered sufficient. The rule which gives 
a man child to a man for education is of very old standing. 

Such is the evidence for concluding that the custom of re- 
ceiving children for education in nunneries was widespread. It 
remains to consider carefully the limitations within which this 
conclusion is true. In the first place, not all nunneries received 
children. It is obviously impossible, considering the gaps in our 
evidence, to attempt an exact estimate of the proportion which 
did so. Some sort of clue may be obtained by an analysis of the 
Yorkshire visitations of Archbishops Greenfield and Melton at 
the beginning of the fourteenth century (1306-20) and of Aln- 
wick's Lincoln visitations (1440-5). The Yorkshire evidence is 
rather scanty, being based on the summaries of injunctions, 
which are given in the Victoria County Histories, and any statistics 
must needs be approximate only. The two archbishops between 
them visited nineteen nunneries and mention of children is made 
at twelve, i.e. about two-thirds. The information given by the 
invaluable Alnwick is more exact. From the detecta of some of 
the nuns and from the number of prohibitions of this practice, 
it is obvious that Alnwick was accustomed to ask at his visita- 
tions whether children were sleeping in the nuns' dorter ; he also 
made careful inquiry as to the boarders. The probabihty, there- 
fore, is that we have in his register an exact record of those 
houses in which children were received. Analysis shows that of 
the twenty houses which he visited he found children, often 
boys as well as girls, at twelve, i.e. a little over two-thirds, which 
is substantially the same result as was given by the Yorkshire 
analysis a century earlier. The estimate is interesting, but it 
cannot be considered conclusive without the corroborative 
evidence from other dioceses, which is unfortunately lacking. 
It is a hint, a straw, which shows which way the wind of research 
is blowing, for if it is unsafe to argue from silence that the nuns 
of other convents did take pupils, it is equally unsafe to argue 
that they did not. 

The fact is, however, clearly established that all nunneries 
did not take children; possibly about two-thirds of them did. 
The further fact has then to be recognised that even those nun- 
neries had not necessarily what we should regard as a school 


for girls. Not only does it sometimes seem as though children 
were taken occasionally and intermittently, rather than regularly, 
but the numbers taken were rarely great. Sometimes we do 
hear of a house with a large number of pupils. At St Mary's 
Winchester in 1536 there were as many as twenty-six children, 
to twenty-six nuns; and at Polesworth in 1537 Henry VIII's 
commissioners state vaguely that "repayre and resort ys made 
to the gentlemens childern and studiounts that ther doo lif, 
to the nombre sometyme of xxx" and sometyme xj" and moo." 
There were fifteen nuns in the house at the time and it is likely 
that the number of children given is a pardonable exaggeration 
by local gentlemen who were interested in preserving the nun- 
nery; but it seems undoubted that there was a comparatively 
large school there. At Stixwould, again, in 1440 there were 
about eighteen children to an equal number of nuns. These, 
however, are the largest schools of which we have record. At 
St Michael's Stamford in 1440 there were seven or eight 
children to twelve nuns, at Catesby in 1442 six or seven children 
to seven nuns. At Swaffham Bulbeck, where there were probably 
eight or nine nuns, there were nine children in 1483. These also 
are schools, though smaU schools. But at other houses there were 
only one or two children at a time. The accounts of the Prioress 
of St Helen's Bishopsgate in 1298 mention only two children, 
there were only two at Littlemore in 1445 and two at Sopwell 
at the time of the Dissolution. It must be remembered that 
many nunneries were themselves very small and their inmates 
could not have looked after a large number of children. The 
examples quoted above suggest that the number of children 
hardly ever exceeded the number of nuns. To what conclusion are 
we driven when we find that a possible two-thirds of the convents 
of England received children and that the largest school of which 
we have record numbered only twenty-six children (or thirty 
if we take the higher and less probable figure for Polesworth), 
while most had far fewer? Surely to represent a majority 
of girls, or even a majority of girls of gentle birth, as having 
received their nurture in convents, would be on the evidence 

The second limitation of convent education in medieval 
England is contained in the words "girls of gentle birth." 


Tanner's statement that ' ' the lower rank of people, who could not 
pay for their learning^," as well as noblemen's and gentlemen's 
daughters, were educated in nunneries has not a shred of evidence 
to support it, though it has been repeated ad nauseam ever since 
he wrote it. Every scrap of evidence which has come down to us 
goes to prove that the girls educated in nunneries were of gentle 
birth, daughters of great lords, or more often daughters of 
country gentlemen, or of those comfortable and substantial 
merchants and burgesses, who were usually themselves sprung 
from younger sons of the gentry. The implication is plain in 
Chaucer's description, in The Reves Tale, of the Miller's wife, 
who was "y-comen of noble kin" and daughter of the parson 
of the toun, and who "was y-fostred in a nonnerye": 

Ther dorste no wight clepen hir but "dame"... 

And eek, for she was somdel smoterlich 

She was as digne as water in a dich; 

And ful of hoker and of bisemare. 

Her thoughte that a lady sliolde hir spare, 

What for hir kinrede and liir nortelrye 

That she had lerned in the nonner)''e. 

An analysis of some of the schoolgirls whose names have 
come down to us confirms this impression. The commissioners 
who visited St Mary's, Winchester, in 1536 drew up a list of 
the twenty-six "chyldren of lordys, knyghttes and gentylmen 
brought up yn the saym monastery." They were 

Bryget Plantagenet, dowghter unto the lord vycounte Lysley (i.e. 
Lisle) ; Mary Pole, dowghter unto Sir Geffrey Pole knyght ; Brygget 
Coppeley, dowghter unto Sir Roger Coppeley knyght; Elizabeth 
Phyllpot, dowghter unto Sir Peter Phyllpot, knyght; Margery Tyrell; 
Adrian Tyrell; Johanne Barnabe; AmyDyngley; Elizabeth Dyngley; 
JaneDyngley; Frances Dyngley; Susan Tycheborne; ElizabethTyche- 
borne; Mary Justyce; Agnes Aylmer; Emma Bartue; Myldred Gierke; 
Anne Lacy; Isold Apulgate; Elizabeth Legh; Mary Legh; Alienor 
North; Johanne Sturgys; Johanne Ffyldes; Johanne Ffrances; Jane 

The house was evidently at this time a fashionable seminary for 
young ladies. It must be remembered that it was a general 

1 Tanner, Notitia Monasiica (1744 edit.), p. xxxii (basing his opinion 
on three secondary authorities and on a misunderstanding of two medieval 
entries, one of which refers to lay sisters and the other to an adult 
boarder) . 


custom among the English nobility and gentry to send their 
children away to the household of a lord, or person of good 
social standing, in order to learn breeding and it was not un- 
common to send boys to the household of an abbot. In 1450 
Thomas Bromele, Abbot of Hyde, thus entertained in his house 
eight "gentiles pueri," there were many "pueri generosi" at 
Westacre in 1494, and Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of 
Glastonbury, is stated by Parsons to have had, among his 300 
servants, "multos nobilium filios" ^. It was doubtless much in 
the same way that the children of lords, knights and gentlemen 
were put in the charge of the Abbess of St Mary's Winchester, 
a great lady, who had her own "gentlewoman" to attend upon 
her and her own private household. It is probable that the nuns 
taught these children, but the boys who went as wards to abbeys 
seem often to have taken their tutors with them, or at least to 
have been taught by special tutors. At Lilleshall, for instance, 
the commissioners found four "gentylmens sons and their scole- 
master"^ and it is significant that when little Gregory Cromwell 
was sent to be brought up by Margaret Vernon, Prioress of 
Little Marlow, he was taught by a private tutor and not by the 

Other references to the children received in nunneries con- 
firms the impression that they were of gentle birth. At Poles- 
worth, as at St Mary's, Winchester, the commissioners specified 
"gentylmens childern and studiounts." At Thetford a daughter 
of John Jerves, generostts , is mentioned in 1532 and two daughters 
of Laurens Knight, gentleman, were at Cornworthy, c. 1470. The 
accounts of Sopwell in 1446 mention the daughter of Lady Anne 
Norbery; at Littlemore in 1445 the daughter of John FitzAleyn, 
steward of the house, and the daughter of Ingelram Warland 
are boarders. Among the Carrow boarders, who may be set down 
as children, are the son and two daughters of Sir Roger Wellisham, 

1 N. Sanderus, de Schismate Aiiglicana, ed. 1586, p. 176. The state- 
ment is not in the original Sanders. A well-known passage in the 
Paston Letters illustrates the practice as regards girls; Margaret Paston 
writes to her son in 1469 "Also I would ye should purvey for your sister to 
be with my Lady of Oxford, or with my Lady of Bedford, or in some other 
worshipful place whereas ye think best, for we be either of us weary of other. " 
It is probable that this method of educating girls was more common than 
nunnery education. 

2 Quoted by Mr Leach, Journ. of Educ. (1910), p. 668. 


the daughter of Sir Robert de Wachesam, a niece of William 
Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, and girls with such well-known 
names as Fastolf, Clere, Baret, BUckling, Shelton and Ferrers, 
though the last two may be adult boarders. The Gracedieu 
boarders nearly all bear the names of neighbouring gentry and 
one was the daughter of Lord Beaumont. In the course of time, 
as the urban middle class grew and flourished, the daughters of 
the well-to-do bourgeoisie were sometimes sent to convents for 
their education. Thus among the Carrow boarders we find a 
daughter of John de Erlham, a merchant and citizen of Norwich, 
and Isabel Barber, daughter of Thomas Welan, barber, who 
afterwards, however, became a nun. It is plain from the wills 
which have been preserved that the wealthy Norwich burgesses 
were in the habit of sending their daughters as nuns to Carrow, 
and it is a natural supposition that they should have sent them 
sometimes as schoolgirls ; but by birth and by wealth these city 
magnates were not far removed from the neighbouring gentry. 
The school at Swaffham Bulbeck in 1483 was less fashionable 
than that at Carrow and did not cater for the nobly born ; it was 
a small house and the names of the children suggest a sound 
middle class establishment, perhaps the very one in which 
Chaucer's Miller's wife of Trumpington was educated, full of 
the sons and daughters of the burgesses of Cambridge, Richard 
Potecary of Cambridge, WilUam Water, Thomas Roch, unnamed 
fathers "of Cambridge," "of Chesterton," Parker "of Walden," 
and "the merchant." 

None of these examples can possibly be twisted into a case 
for the free, or even the cheap, education of the poor. Just as 
we never find low-born girls as nuns, so we never find them as 
schoolgirls and for the same reason; "dowerless maidens," as 
Mr Leach says, "were not sought as nuns." As will be seen 
hereafter, the reception of school children was essentially a 
financial expedient; one of the many methods by which the 
nuns sought to raise the wind*. The fees paid by these children 

' Possibly, as Mr Coulton points out (Med. Studies, X, p. 26), this may 
account for the fact that evidence of girl pupils is wanting for some of the 
wealthier and more important nunneries; he instances Shaftesbury, Ames- 
bury, Syon, Studley and Lacock. For the life of the nuns at Lacock and 
Amesbury we have very little information of any kind, but our information 
is fairly full for Shaftesbury, and very full for Syon and for Studley. 


are recorded here and there, in nunnery accounts; education 

was apparently thrown in with board, and the usual rate for 

board for children during the century and a half before the 

Dissolution seems to have been about 6d. a week, though the 

charge at Cornworthy c. 1470 was lod. a week and at Littlemore 

in 1445 only 4d. a week^. Occasionally the good nuns suffered, 

like so many schoolmistresses since their day, from the difficulty 

of extracting fees. Among the debts owing to the nuns of Esholt 

at the Dissolution was one of 33s. from Walter Wood of Timble 

in the parish of Otley for his child's board for a year and a half ; 

and at Thetford in 1532 the poor nuns complained that "John 

Jerves, gentleman, has a daughter being nurtured in the priory 

and pays nothing." The most melancholy case of all has been 

preserved to us owing to the fact that the nuns, goaded to 

desperation, sought help from the Chancellor. About 1470 

Thomasyn Dynham, Prioress of Cornworthy, made petition to 

the effect that Laurens Knyghte, gentleman, had agreed with 

Margaret Wortham the late Prioress, that she should take his 

two daughters "to teche them to scole," viz. Elizabeth, aged 

seven years, and "Jahne," aged ten j'ears, at the costs and 

charges of Laurens, who was to pay 2od. a week for them. So 

at Cornworthy they remained during the life of Margaret, to 

the great costs and charges and impoverishing of the said poor 

place, by the space of five years and more, until the money due 

amounted to £21. 13s. ^d., "the which sum is not contented ne 

paid, nor noo peny thereof." Laurense meanwhile departed this 

hfe, leaving his wife "Jahne" executrix, and Jahne, unnatural 

mother that she was, married again a certain John Barnehous 

and utterly refused to pay for her unhappy daughters. One is 

uncertain which to pity most, Thomasyn Dynham, a new Prioress 

left with this incubus on her hands, or Ehzabeth and Jane 

Knyghte, trying hard to restrain their appetites and not to 

grow out of their clothes under her justly incensed regard. Jane 

was by now grown up and marriageable according to the 

standards of the time and it is tantahsing not to know the end 

of the dilemma. A proneness to forget fees seems to have been 

1 For a discussion of these charges and of other prices and payments, 
with which they may be compared, see J. E. G. de Montmorency in Journ. of 
Educ. (1909), pp. 429-30 and Coulton, op. cit. app, iv. (School Children in 
Nunnery Accounts), pp. 38-40. 


shared by greater folk than Mistress Knyghte, as the petition 
of Katherine de la Pole, Abbess of Barking, concerning Edmond 
and Jasper Tudor, whose "charges, costs and expenses" she 
had taken upon herself, will show. 

Both this matter of fees and the names of schoolgirls which 
have survived are against any suggestion that the nuns gave 
schoohng to poor girls. There is not the slightest evidence for 
anything Uke a day school, and the only hint for any care for 
village girls on the part of the nuns is contained in a letter from 
Cranmer, when fehow of Jesus College, to the Abbess of Godstow : 

Stephen Whyte hath told me that you lately gathered round you a 
number of wild peasant maids and did make them a most goodly 
discourse on the health of their souls; and you showeth them how 
goodly a thing it be for them to go oftentimes to confession. I am 
mighty glad of your discourse'^. 

But this is obviously an isolated discourse and in any case it 
has nothing to do with education. So far as it is possible to be 
certain of anything for which evidence is scanty, we may be 
certain that poor or lower-class girls were no more received in 
nunneries for education, than they were received there as nuns. 
No single instance has ever been brought of a lowborn nun or 
a lowborn schoolgirl, in any English nunnery, for the three 
centuries before the nunneries were dissolved. 

The third limitation to which convent education was sub- 
jected is an important one; the reception of children by the nuns 
was never approved and always restricted by their ecclesiastical 
superiors. The greater number of references to schoolchildren 
which have come down to us are these restrictive references. The 
attitude of monastic visitors towards children was in essence 
the same as their attitude towards boarders. The nuns received 
both, because they were nearly always in low water financially 
and wished to add to their scanty finances by the familiar ex- 
pedient of taking paying guests. But the bishops saw in all 
boarders, whether adults or schoolchildren, a hindrance to disci- 
pline; they objected to them for the same reason that they 

^ Quoted in S. H. Burke, The Monastic Houses of England, their Accusers 
and Defenders (1869), p. 32'. Compare the words of a Venetian traveller, 
Paolo Casenigo: "The English nuns gave instructions to the poorer virgins 
as to their duties when they became wives; to be obedient to their husbands 
and to give good example," a curious note. lb. p. 31, 


objected to pet dogs and silver girdles and with just as little 

The ecclesiastical case against schoolchildren may be found 
delightfully set forth in the words addressed, it is true, to 
anchoresses, but expressing the same spirit as was afterwards 
shown by Eudes Rigaud, Johann Busch and other great medieval 
visitors towards nuns. Aelred, the great twelfth century Abbot 
of Rievaulx, writes thus: 

Allow no boys or girls to have access to you. There are certain an- 
choresses, who are busied in teaching pupils and turn their chambers 
into a school. The mistress sits at the window, the child in the cloister. 
She looks at each of them; and, during their puerile actions, now is 
angry, now laughs, now threatens, now soothes, now spares, now 
kisses, now calls the weeping child to be beaten, then strokes her face, 
bids her hold up her head, and eagerly embracing her, calls her her 
child, her love^. 

Similarly the author of the Ancren Riwle warns his three 
anchoresses : 

An anchoress must not become a schoolmistress, nor turn her anchoress- 
house into a school for children. Her maiden may, however, teach 
any httle girl, concerning whom it might be doubtful whether she 
should learn among boys, but an anchoress ought to give her thoughts 
to God only^- 

The gist of the matter was that the children constituted a 
hindrance to claustral disciphne and devotion. It is plain, how- 
ever, that in this, as in so many other matters, the reformers 
were only "beating the air" in vain with their restrictions. 
Sympathy must be with the needy nuns, for even if discipline 
were weakened thereby, the reception of children was in itself 
a very harmless, not to say laudable expedient; and so the 
neighbouring gentry as well as the nuns considered it. 

An analysis of the attitude of medieval visitors to school- 
children shows us the usual attempt to limit what it was beyond 
their power to prohibit. Eudes Rigaud, the great Archbishop of 
Rouen, habitually removed all the girls and boys whom he found 
in the houses of his diocese, when he visited them during the 
years 1249 to 1269. But in England, at least, the nuns very soon 
became too strong for the bishops, who gradually adopted the 
policy of fixing an age limit beyond which no children might 

1 Quoted in Fosbroke, British Monachism (1802), 11, p. 35, 

2 Ancren Riwle, ed. Gasquet, p. 319. 


remain in a nunnery and sometimes of requiring their own licence 
to be given before the boys and girls were admitted. Since the 
danger of secularisation could not be removed, it was at least 
reduced to a minimum, by ensuring that only very young boys 
and only girls, who had not yet attained a marriageable age, 
should be received. The age limit varied a little with different 
visitors and different houses. In the Yorkshire diocese early in 
the fourteenth century the age limit was twelve for girls; boys 
are rarely mentioned, but at Hampole in 1314 the nuns were 
forbidden to permit male children over five to be in the house, 
as the bishop finds has been the practice. Bishop Gynewell in 
1359 allowed girls up to ten and boys up to six at Elstow, but 
forbade boys' altogether at Heynings. Bishop Gray allowed girls 
under fourteen and boys under eight at Burnham in 1434 and 
Bishop Stretton in 1367 allowed boys up to seven at Fairwell. 
The age Hmit tended, it wiU be seen, to become higher in the 
course of time; Alnwick writing to Gracedieu in 1440, forbade 
all boarders "save childerne, males the ix and females the 
xiiij yere of age, whom we hcencede you to hafe for your relefe "'■; 
he allowed boys often at Heynings and Catesby and boys of 
eleven (an exceptionally high age) at Harrold. 

There was a special reason, besides the general interference 
with discipline, for which the bishops objected to children in 
nunneries. It seems very often to have been the custom for the 
nuns to take, as it were, private pupils, each child having its 
own particular mistress. This custom grew as the practice of 
keeping separate households grew. Thus at Catesby the Prioress 
complained to Alnwick that sister Agnes Allesley had "six or 
seven young folk of both sexes, that do lie in the dorter"; at 
St Michael's Stamford, he found that the Prioress had seven 
or eight children, at Gracedieu the cellaress had a Uttle boy and 
at Elstow, where there were five households of nuns, it was said 
that "certain nuns" brought children into the quire. In fact, 
the nuns would appear to have kept for their own personal use 
the money paid to them for the board of their private pupils. 
This was a sin against the monastic rule of personal poverty 

^ Notice the recognition of the financial reasons for taking school- 
children. So also in 1489 the nuns of Nunappleton are to take no boarders 
"but if they be childern or ellis old persons by which availe by likelihod 
may grow to your place " — fees or legacies, in fact. Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 654. 


and the bishops took special measures against such manifesta- 
tions of proprietas. WilUam of Wykeham in 1387 forbids the 
nuns of Romsey to make wills and to have private rooms or 
private pupils, giving this specific reason, and at St Helen's 
Bishopsgate in 1439 Dean Kentwode enjoined "that no nonne 
have ne recey ve noo schuldrin wyth hem . . . but yf that the 
profite of the comonys turne to the vayle of the same howse." 
Similarly the number of children who might be taken by a single 
nun was sometimes limited; Gynewell wrote to Godstow in 
1358 "that no lady of the said house is to have children, save 
only two or three females sojourning with them " and at Fairwell 
in 1367 no nun might keep with her for education more than 
one child. 

Another habit against which bishops constantly legislated 
was that of having the children to sleep in the dorter with the 
nuns. This practice was exceedingly common, for many of the 
nunneries which took children were small and poor; they had 
possibly no other room to set aside for them, and no person who 
could suitably be placed in charge of them. Moreover in some 
cases adult boarders and servants also slept in the dorter. 
Alnwick was constantly having to bid his nuns "that ye suffre 
ne seculere persones, wymmen ne childern lyg by nyghte in the 
dormytory," but Atwater and Longland in the sixteenth century 
still have to make the same injunction. Bokyngham in 1387 
ordered that a seemly place outside the cloister should be set 
apart for the children at Heynings ; the reason was that (as Gyne- 
well had expressly stated on visiting this house forty years before) 
"the convent might not be disturbed." Indeed little attempt 
was made by the nuns to keep the children out of their way. 
They seem to have dined in the refectory, when not in the separate 
rooms of their mistresses, for Greenfield forbids the Prioress 
and Subprioress of Sinningthwaite (1315) to permit boys or girls 
to eat flesh meat in Advent or Sexagesima, or during Lent eggs 
or cheese, in the refectory, "contrary to the honesty of religion," 
but at those seasons when they ought to eat such things, they 
were to be assigned other places in which to eat them. There 
are references, too, to disturbances and diversions created by 
the children in the quire. At Elstow in 1442 Dame Rose Walde- 
grave said that "certain nuns do sometimes have with them in 

P.N. 18 

274 EDUCATION [ch. 

time of mass the boys whom they teach and these do make a 
noise in quire during divine service "''■. To us the picture of these 
merry children breaking the monotony of convent routine is an 
attractive one; more attractive even than the pet dogs and the 
Vert- Verts. But to stern ecclesiastical disciphnarians it was not 
so attractive, and their constant restriction, though it never suc- 
ceeded in turning out the children, must have kept down the 
number who were admitted. 

The evidence which has so far been considered shows that, 
though the reception of children to be boarded and taught in 
nunneries was fairly common, it was subjected to well marked 
limitations. There remains to be considered one more question 
the answer to which is in some sort a limitation likewise. 
What exactly did the nuns teach these children? We are 
hampered in answering this question by the difficulty of ob- 
taining exact contemporary evidence. Most modern English 
writers content themselves with a glib list of accomphshments, 
copied without verification from book to book, and all apparently 
traceable in the last resort to Fuller and John Aubrey, the one 
writing a century, the other almost a century and a half after 
the nunneries had been dissolved. Fuller (whom Tanner copies) 

Nunneries also were good Shee-schools, wherein the girles and maids 
of the neighbourhood were taught to read and work; and some- 
times a Uttle Latine was taught them therein. Yea, give me leave 
to say, if such Feminine Foundations had still continued... haply 
the weaker sex (besides the avoiding modern inconveniences) might 
be heightened to a higher perfection than hitherto hath been 
obtained ^. 

1 Caesarius of Heisterbach gives a picture of a less disturbing child in 
quire (though she was more probably a Uttle girl who was intended for a 
nun). This is the English fifteenth century translation: "Caesarius telUs 
how that in Essex" (really in Saxony, but the translator was anxious to 
introduce local colour for the sake of his audience), "in a monasterye of 
nonnys, ther was a litle damysell, and on a grete solempne nyght hur mais- 
tres lete hur com with hur to matyns. So the damysell was bod a wayke 
thyng, and hur maistres was ferd at sho sulde take colde, and sho com- 
maundid hur befor Te Deum to go vnto the dortur to her bed agayn. And 
at hur commandment sho went furth of the where, thuff all it war with ill 
wyll, and abade withoute the where and thoght to here the residue of 
matyns " ; whereat she saw a vision of the nuns caught up to heaven praising 
God among the angels, at the Te Deum. An Alphabet of Tales (E.E.T.S. 
1905), n, p. 406. 

^ Fuller, Church Hist. See p. 255 above, note 3. 


Aubrey, speaking of Wiltshire convents says: 

There the young maids were brought up... at the nunneries, where 
they had examples of piety, and humility, and modesty, and obedience 
to imitate, and to practise. Here they learned needle-work, the art 
of confectionary, surgery (for anciently there were no apothecaries or 
surgeons — the gentlewomen did cure their poor neighbours; their 
hands are now too fine), physic, writing, drawing etc."^ 

One would have thought the familiar note of the laudator 
temporis acti to be plainly audible in both these extracts. But 
a host of modern writers have gravely transcribed their words 
and even, taking advantage no doubt of Aubrey's "etc." (much 
virtue in etc.), improved upon them. In the work of one more 
recent writer the list has become "reading, writing, some 
knowledge of arithmetic, the art of embroidery, music and 
French "after the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,' were the recog- 
nised course of study, while the preparation of perfumes, balsams, 
simples and confectionary was among the more ordinary depart- 
ments of the education afforded "2. Another adds a few more 
deft touches: "the treatment of various disorders, the com- 
pounding of simples, the binding up of wounds, . . . fancy cookery, 
such as the making of sweetmeats, writing, drawing, needlework 
of all kinds and music, both vocal and instrumental"^. The most 
recent writer of all gives the list as "English and French. . . 
writing, drawing, confectionary, singing by notes, dancing, and 
playing upon instruments of music, the study also of medicine 
and surgery"*. Though the historian must groan, the student 
of human nature cannot but smile to see music insinuate itself 
into the Ust and then become "both instrumental and vocal"; 
confectionery extend itself to include perfumes, balsams, simples, 
and the making of sweetmeats; arithmetic appear out of nowhere; 
and (most magnificent feat of the imagination) dancing trip in 
on light fantastic toe. From this compound of Aubrey, memories 
of continental convents in the seventeenth and eighteenth 

1 Quoted in Gasquet, Eng. Monastic Life, p. 177. 

^ Hugo, Medieval Nunneries of Somerset (Minchin Buckland) , p. 107. 

" G. Hill, Women in Eng. Life (1896), p. 79. 

* Times Educational Supplement (Sept. 4, 1919)- This seems to be taken 
from Fosbroke, Brit. Monachism. 11, pp. 6-7, who takes it from Sir H. 
Chauncey's Hist, and Antiqs. of Hertfordshire, p. 423; it is the first appear- 
ance of dancing; as Fosbroke sapiently argued, "The dancing of nuns will 
be hereafter spoken of and if they dance they must somewhere learn how." 


centuries and familiarity with the convent schools of our own 
day, let us turn to the considered opinion of a more sober 
scholar, who bases it only upon contemporary evidence: 

" No evidence whatever," says Mr Leach, " has been produced of what 
was taught in nunneries. That... something must have been taught, 
if only to keep the children employed, is highly probable. That the 
teaching included learning the Lord's Prayer, etc. by heart may be 
conceded. Probably Fuller is right in guessing that it included reading ; 
but it is only a guess. One would guess that it included sewing and 
spinning. As for its including Latin, no evidence is forthcoming and 
it is difficult to see how those who did not know Latin could teach it^." 

Direct evidence is therefore absolutely lacking; all we can 
do is to deduce probabilities from what we know of the education 
of the nuns themselves, and it must be conceded that this was 
not always of a very high order. It is quite certain, from the 
wording of some of the visitation injunctions, that the quality 
and extent of the teaching must have varied considerably from 
house to house. It was probably good (as the education of 
women then went) at the larger and more fashionable houses, 
mediocre at those which were smaU and struggling. Latin could 
not have been taught, because, as has already been pointed out, 
the nuns at this period did not know it themselves; but the 
children were probably taught the Credo, the Ave and the 
Pater Nosier in Latin by rote. They may have been taught 
French of the school of Stratford atte Bowe, as long as that 
language was fashionable in the outside world and known to 
the nuns, but it died out of the convents after the end of the 
fourteenth century. It seems pretty certain that the children 
must have been taught to read. "Abstinence the abbesse myn 
a.b.c. me tau3te," says Piers Plowman; the Abbess of St Mary's 
Winchester buys the matins books for little Bridget Plantagenet; 
and it will be remembered that the nuns of Godstow were said 

1 Journ. of Education, 1910, p. 841. Mr Hamilton Thompson sends me 
this note: "Probably, so far as any systematic teaching went, they were 
taught 'grammar' and song, which would vary in quality according to the 
teacher. These are the only two elements of which we regularly hear in the 
ordinary schools of the day. I do not see any reason to suppose that they 
were taught more or less. Song (i.e. church song) takes such a very promi- 
nent part in medieval education that I think it would not have been 
neglected; it was also one of the things which nuns ought to have been able 
to teach from their daily experience in quire. Bridget Plantagenet's book 
of matins (see below) would be an appropriate lesson book for both grammar 
and song, as nuns would understand them." 


about 1460 (fifteen years after Alnwick visited the house and 
gave permission for children to be boarded there) to be "for the 
more party in Englyssh bokys well y-lernyd." Caesarius of 
Heisterbach has a delightful story, repeated thus in a fifteenth 
century Alphabet of Tales: 

Caesarius tellis how that in Freseland in a nonrie ther was ii little 
maydens that lernyd on the buke, and euer thai strafe whethur of 
thaim shulde lern mor than the toder. So the tane of thaim happened 
to fall sake and sho garte call the Priores vnto hur & sayd: "Gude 
ladle ! suffre nott my felow to lern vnto I cover of my sekenes, and 
I sail pray my moder to gif me vj d & that I sail gifi you & ye do so, 
ffor I drede that whils I am seke, that sho sail pas me in lernyng, & 
that I wolde not at sho did." And at this wurde the priores smylid 
& hadd grete mervayle of the damysell conseytei. 

Whether girls were taught to write, as well as to read, is far 
more doubtful. It is probable that the nuns did not always 
possess this accomplishment themselves, nor did sober medieval 
opinion consider it wholly desirable that girls should know how 
to write, on account both of the general inferiority of their sex, 
and of a regrettable procUvity towards clandestine love letters^. 
Still, writing may sometimes have formed part of the curriculum ; 
there is no evidence either way. For drawing (by which presum- 
ably the art of illumination must be meant) there is no warrant ; 
a medieval nunnery was not a modern "finishing" school. 

So much for what may be called book learning. Let us now 
examine for a moment the other accompHshments with which 
nunnery-bred young ladies have been credited. We may, as 
Mr Leach suggests, make a guess at spinning and needlework, 
though here also there is no evidence for their being taught to 

1 An Alphabet of Tales (E.E.T.S. 1905), p. 272, from Caesarius of 
Heisterbach, Dialog. Mirac. ed. Strange, I, p. 196. 

^ See e.g. the Knight of La Tour Landrj', p. 178, "Et pour ce que 
aucuns gens dient que ilz ne voudroient pas que leurs femmes ne leurs filles 
sceussent rien de clergie ne d'escripture, je dy ainsi que, quant d'escryre, 
n'y a force que femme en saiche riens; mais quant a lire, tout femme en 
vault mieulx de le scavoir et cognoist mieulx la foy et les perils de I'ame 
et son saulvement, et u'en est pas de cent une qui n'en vaille mieulx ; car c'est 
chose esprouvee." Quoted in A. A. Hentsch, De la literature didactique 
du moyen &ge s'addressant spicialement aux femmes (Cahors, 1903), p. 133. 
So Phihppe de Novare (I 1270) refuses to allow women to learn reading or 
writing, because they expose her to evil, and Francesco da Barberino (f 1348) 
refuses to allow reading and writing except to girls of the highest rank (not 
including the daughters of esquires, judges and gentlefolk of their class) ; 
both, however, make exception for nuns. lb. pp. 84, 106-7. 

278 EDUCATION [ch. 

schoolgirls. Jane Scroupe, into whose mouth Skelton puts his 
" Phyllyp Sparowe," was apparently being brought up at Oarrow, 
and describes how she sewed the dead bird's likeness on her 

I toke my sampler ones. 

Of purpose, for the nones. 

To sowe with stytchis of sylke 

My sparow whyte as my Ike. 

Confectionery does not seem very probable, for at this period 
the cooking for the convent was nearly always done by a hired 
male cook and not (as laid down in the Benedictine rule) by 
the nuns themselves, who were apt to complain if they had to 
prepare the meals. For "home medicine" there is absolutely 
no evidence, though all ladies of the day possessed some know- 
ledge of simples and herb-medicines and the girls may equally 
well have learned it at home as among the nuns. It is probable 
that the children learned to sing, if the nuns took them into the 
quire; but for this there is no definite evidence, nor has any docu- 
ment been quoted to prove that they learned to play upon in- 
struments of music. It is true that the flighty Dame Isabel Benet 
"did dance and play the lute" with the friars of Northampton^ 
and that " a pair of organs " occurs twice in Dissolution inventories 
of nunneries^, but an organ is hardly an instrument of secular 
music to be played by the daughter of the house in a manorial 
solar; and Dame Benet's escapade with the lute was a lapse from 
the strict path of virtue. Finally to suggest that the nuns taught 
dances verges upon absurdity. That they did sometimes dance 
is true, and grieved their visitors were to hear it^; but what 
Alnwick would have said to the suggestion that they solemnly 
engaged themselves to teach dancing to their young pupils is 
an amusing subject for contemplation. Evidence for everything 
except the prayers of the church and the art of reading is non- 
existent; we can but base our opinion upon conjecture and 
probability; and the probability for instrumental music is so 
shght as to be non-existent. If it be argued that gentlewomen 
were expected to possess these arts, it may be replied that the 
children whom we find at nunneries probably had opportunity 

1 See below, p. 388. 

2 Archaeologia, xliii (1871), p. 245 (Redlingfield and Bruisyard). 
^ See below, p. 309. 


to learn them at home, for they seem sometimes to have spent 
only a part of the year with the nuns. It is true that board is 
sometimes paid for the whole year, and that little Bridget 
Plantagenet stayed at St Mary's Winchester for two or three 
years, while her parents were absent in France; moreover we 
have already heard of poor Elizabeth and Jane Knyghte, left 
for over five years at Cornworthy. But an analysis of the 
Swaffham Bulbeck accounts shows that the children (if indeed 
they are children) stayed for the following periods during the 
year 1483, viz., two for forty weeks, one for thirty weeks, one 
for twenty-six weeks, two for twenty-two weeks, one for sixteen 
weeks, one for twelve weeks and one for six weeks. It is much 
more likely that girls were sent to the nuns for elementary 
schooling than for the acquirement of worldly accomphshments. 
As has already been pointed out, it is difficult to get any 
specific information as to the hfe led by the schoolchildren in 
nunneries. But by good fortune some letters written by an 
abbess shortly before the Dissolution have been preserved and 
give a pleasant picture of a little girl boarding in a nunnery. 
The correspondence in question took place between Elizabeth 
Shelley, Abbess of St Mary's Winchester, and Honor, Vis- 
countess Lisle, concerning the latter's stepdaughter, the lady 
Bridget Plantagenet, who was one of the twenty-six aristocratic 
young ladies then at school in the nunnery^. Lord Lisle was 
an illegitimate son of Edward IV, and had been appointed Lord 
Deputy of Calais in 1533; and when he and his wife departed 
to take up the new office, they were at pains to find suitable 
homes for their younger children in England. A stepson of Lord 
Lisle's was boarded with the Abbot of Reading and his two 
younger daughters, the ladies Ehzabeth and Bridget Plantagenet, 
were left, the one in charge of her half-brother. Sir John Dudley, 
and the other in that of the energetic Abbess of St Mary's 
Winchester. It must be admitted that the correspondence 
between the abbess and Lady Lisle shows a greater preoccupa- 
tion with dress than with learning. The Lady Bridget grew like 
the grass in springtime; there was no keeping her in clothes. 

"After due recommendation," writes the abbess, "Pleaseth it your 
good ladyship to know that I have received your letter, dated the 

1 Wood, Letters of Royal and Jlhistrious Ladies, 11, pp. 213-7. 


4tli day of February last past, by the which I do perceive your pleasure 
is to know how mistress Bridget your daughter doth, and what 
things she lacketh. Madam, thanks be to God, she is in good health, 
but I assure your ladyship she lacketh convenient apparel, for she 
hath neither whole gown nor kirtle, but the gown and kirtle that you 
sent her last. And also she hath not one good partlet to put upon her 
neck, nor but one good coif to put upon her head. Wherefore, I be- 
seech your ladyship to send to her such apparel as she lacketh, as 
shortly as you may conveniently. Also the bringer of your letter 
shewed to me that your pleasure is to know how much money I 
received for mistress Bridget's board, and how long she hath been 
with me. Madam, she hath been vidth me a whole year ended the 
8th day of July last past, and as many weeks as is between that day 
and the day of making this bill, which is thirty three weeks; and so 
she hath been with me a whole year and thirty three weeks, which is 
in all four score and five weeks. And I have received of mistress 
Katherine Mutton, ids., and of Stephen Bedham, 20s. ; and I received 
the day of making this bill, of John Harrison, your servant, 405. : and 
so I have received in all, since she came to me, toward the payment 
for her board, 705. Also, madam, I have laid out for her, for mending 
of her gowns and for two matins books, four pair of hosen, and four 
pairs of shoes, and other small things, 35. ^d. And, good madam, any 
pleasure that I may do your ladyship and also my prayer, you shall 
be assured of, with the grace of Jesus, who preserve you and aU yours 
in honour and health. Amen." 

But for the matins books, sandwiched uncomfortably between 
gowns and hosen, there is no clue here as to what the Lady 
Bridget was learning. 

The tenor of the next letter, written about seven months 
later, is the same, for still the noble little lady grew : 

" Mine singular and special good lady," writes the Abbess, " I heartily 
recommend me to your good ladyship ; ascertaining you that I have 
received from your servant this summer a side of venison and two 
dozen and a half of pee- wits." 

(What flesh-days there must have been in the refectory!) 
"And whereas your ladyship do write that you sent me an ermine cape 
for your daughter, surely I see none ; but the tawny velvet gown that 
you write of, I have received it. I have sent unto you, by the bringer 
of your letter, your daughter's black velvet gown ; also I have caused 
kirtles to be made of her old gowns, according unto your writing; 
and the 105. you sent is bestowed for her, and more, as it shall appear 
by a bill of reckoning which I have made of the same. And I trust she 
shall lack nothing that is necessary for her." 

Another letter shows that the wardrobe difficulty was no 
whit abated, but the Abbess dealt with it by the rather hard- 


hearted expedient of sending poor Bridget away on a visit to 
her father's steward at Soberton in Hampshire, in her outgrown 
clothes, in order that he might be moved to amend her state. 
Clearly it was not always easy to get what was requisite for a 
schoolgirl from a gay and busy mother, disporting herself across 
the sea: 

" This is to advertise your ladyship," says the Abbess, " Upon a four- 
teen or fifteen days before Michaelmas, mistress Waynam and 
mistress Fawkenor came to Winchester to see mistress Bridget Lisle, 
with whom came two of my lord's servants, and desired to have 
mistress Bridget to sir Anthony Windsor's to sport her for a week. 
And because she was out of apparel, that master Windsor might see 
her, I was the better content to let her go; and since that time she 
came no more at Winchester : Wherein I beseech your ladyship think no 
unkindness in me for my Ught sending of her : for if I had not esteemed 
her to have come again, she should not have come there at that time." 

The reason why lucky Utile Bridget was enjoying a holiday 
appears in a letter from the steward. Sir Anthony Windsor, to 
Lord Lisle, in which he not only takes a firm Une over the dress 
problem (as the Abbess foresaw), but seems also to cast some 
aspersion upon the nunnery; the nuns, he evidently thought, 
had no idea how to feed a growing girl, or how to spoil her, as 
she ought to be spoiled : 

Also mistress Bridget recommendeth her to your good lordship, and 
also to my lady, beseeching you of your blessing. She is now at home 
with me, because I will provide for her apparel such things as shall 
be necessary, for she hath overgrown all that she ever hath, except 
such as she hath had of late : and I wiU keep her here still if it be your 
lordship's and my lady's pleasure that I shall so do, and she shaU 
fare no worse that I do, for she is very spare and hath need of cherish- 
ing, and she shall lack nothing in learning, nor otherwise that my 
wife can do for her. 

Apparently she never went back to the nunnery, and a few 

years later it was dissolved : 

And when {s)he came to Saynte Marie's aisle 

Where nonnes were wont to praie, 
The vespers were songe, the shryne was gone, 

And the nonnes had passyd awaie. 

A word should perhaps be added as to the "piety and 
breeding," which Lady Bridget and other Httle schoolgirls learned 
from the nuns, for good sentimentalists of later days often looked 
back and regretted the loss of a training, presumably instinct 


with religion and morality. It is well nigh impossible to generalise 
in this matter, so greatly did convents differ from each other. 
St Mary's Winchester was of very good repute, and for this we 
have not only the testimony of the local gentlemen, who were 
commissioned to visit it by Henry VIII in 1536, but also of the 
visitation which was held by Dr Hede in 1501. Undoubtedly the 
aristocratic young ladies who went there did not lack the precept 
and example of pious and well bred mistresses. The statement 
of the commissioners at Polesworth that the children there were 
"right virtuously brought up" has often been quoted. So also 
has the plea of Robert Aske, who led the ill-fated Pilgrimage of 
Grace, by which the people of Yorkshire sought to bring back 
the old religion, and in particular the monastic houses; in the 
abbeys, he said, " all gentlemen (were) much succoured in their 
needs, with many their young sons there assisted and in nunneries 
their daughters brought up in virtue "^ Less well-known is the 
tribute of the reformer Thomas Becon (1512-67), the more 
striking in that he was a staunch Protestant, who had suffered 
for his faith. Although he refers in disparagement to the nun- 
neries of his own day, his description of the relations between 
nuns and their pupils cannot be founded solely upon an imaginary 
golden age: 

"The young maids," he writes, "were not enforced to wear this or 
that apparel ; to abstain from this or that kind of meats ; to sing this 
or that service; to say so many prayers; to shave their heads; to 
vow chastity; and for ever to abide in their cloister unto their dying 
day. But contrariwise, they might wear what apparel they would, 
so that it were honest and seemly and such as becometh maidens that 
profess godliness. They might freely eat all kinds of meats according 
to the rule of the gospel, avoiding all excess and superfluity, yea, and 
that at all times. Their prayers were free and without compulsion, 
everyone praying when the Holy Ghost moved their hearts to pray; 
yea, and that such prayers as present necessity required, and that 
also not in a strange tongue, but in such language as they did right 
well understand. To shave their heads and to keep such-like super- 
stitious observances as our nuns did in times past and yet do in the 
kingdom of the pope, they were not compelled. For all that they were 
commanded to do of their schoolmistresses and governesses was 
nothing else than the doctrine of the gospel and matters appertaining 
unto honest and civil manners; whom they most willingly obeyed. 
Moreover, it was lawful for them to go out of the cloister when they 

^ Quoted Gasquet, Hen. VIII and the Eng. Monasteries (1899), p. 227. 


would, or when they were required of their friends ; and also to marry 
when and with whom they would, so that it were in the Lord. And 
would God there were some consideration of this matter had among 
the rulers of the christian commonwealth, that young maids might 
be godly brought up, and learn from their cradles ' to be sober-minded, 
to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, 
housewifely, good, obedient to their husbands' "^ 

These eulogies are all necessarily tinged by the knowledge 
that the nunneries either were about to disappear, or had dis- 
appeared, from England. They had filled a useful function and 
men were willing to be to their faults a little blind. It cannot 
be doubted that the gentry and the substantial middle class 
appreciated them ; up to the very eve of the Dissolution legacies 
to monastic houses are a common feature in wills. Only an 
inadequate conclusion, however, is to be reached from a study 
of tributes such as those of the commissioners at St Mary's 
Winchester and Polesworth and of Robert Aske. If we turn 
to pre- Reformation visitation reports, which are free from the 
desire to state a case, the evidence is more mixed. It is only 
reasonable to conclude that many nunneries did indeed bring 
children up, with the example of virtue before their eyes, and 
the omnia bene of many reports reinforces such a conclusion. 
But it is impossible also to avoid the conviction that other 
houses were not always desirable homes for the young, nor nuns 
their best example. When Alnwick visited his diocese in the first 
half of the fifteenth century there were children at Godstow, 
where at least one nun was frankly immoral and where all 
received visits freely from the scholars of Oxford ; nor was the 
general reputation of the house good at other periods. There were 
children also at Catesby and at St Michael's Stamford, which 
were in a thoroughly bad state, under bad prioresses. At Catesby 
the poor innocents lay in the dorter, where lay also sister Isabel 
Benet, far gone with child; and they must have heard the 
Prioress screaming " Beggars ! " and " Whores ! " at the nuns and 
dragging them round the cloister by their hair^. At St Michael's 
Stamford, all was in disorder and no less than three of the nuns 
were unchaste, one having twice run away, each time with a 
different partner. The visitation of Gracedieu on the same 

1 The Catechism of Thomas Bacon, S.T.P., ed. John Ayre (Parker Soc 
1894), p. 377. See above, p. 82. 

284 EDUCATION [CH. vi 

occasion shows too much quarrelling and misrule to make possible 
a very high opinion of its piety or of its breeding. If we turn 
to another set of injunctions, the great series for the diocese of 
York, it must be conceded that though the gentry of the county 
doubtless found the convents useful as schools and lodging 
houses, it is difficult to see how Aske's plea that " their daughters 
(were) brought up in virtue" could possibly have been true of 
the fourteenth century, when the morals and manners of the 
nuns were extremely bad. There is not much evidence for the 
period of which Aske could speak from his own knowledge ; but 
at Esholt, where two children were at school in 1537, one of the 
nuns was found'to have "lyved incontinentlie and vnchast and 
. . . .broght forth a child of her bodie begotten" and an alehouse 
had been set up within the convent gates, in 1535^- The only 
safe generalisation to make about this, as about so many other 
problems of medieval social history, is that there can be no 
generalisation. The standard of piety and breeding likely to be 
acquired by children in medieval nunneries must have differed 
considerably from time to time and from house to house. 

^ Yorks. Archaeol. Journ. xvi, pp. 452-3. Unluckily among Archbishop 
Lee's injunctions there remain only three sets addressed to nunneries; there 
are also two letters concerning an immoral and apostate ex-Prioress of 
Basedale. At the other two nunneries addressed, Nunappleton and Sinning- 
thwaite, no specific accusations are made, but the Archbishop enjoins that 
the nuns shall "observe chastity" (§ ix, p. 440) and avoid the suspicious 
company of men (§ v, p. 441). 



Where is the pain that does not become deadened after a thousand 
years ? or what is the nature of that pleasure or happiness which never 
wearies by monotony? Earthly pleasures and pains are short in 
proportion as they are keen; of any others, which are both intense 
and lasting, we can form no idea.... To beings constituted as we are, 
the monotony of singing Psalms would be as great an affliction as the 
pains of hell and might even be pleasantly interrupted by them. 

JowETT, Introduction to Plato's Phaedo. 

St Benedict's common sense is nowhere more strikingly shown 
than in his division of the routine of monastic hfe between the 
three occupations of divine service, manual labour and reading. 
Not only has this arrangement the merit of developing the 
different sides of men's natures, spirit, body and brain, but it 
fulfils a deep psychological necessity. The essence of communal 
life is regularity, but no human being can subsist without a 
further ingredient of variety. St Benedict knew well enough 
that unless he provided the stimulus of change within the Rule, 
outraged nature would seek for it outside. Hence the careful 
adjustment of occupations to combine variety with regularity. 
The services were the supreme joy and duty of the monk and nun 
and the hfe of the convent was centred in its church. But these 
services were not excessively long and were divided from each 
other by periods of sleep by night and of work, or study, or 
meditation by day, after the manner which Crashaw inimitably 
set forth in his Description of a Religious House and Condition 

of Life: 

A hasty portion of prescribed sleep ; 

Obedient slumbers, that can wake and weep. 

And sing, and sigh, and work, and sleep again; 

Still rolhng a round sphere of still-returning pain. 

Hands full of hearty labours ; pains that pay 

And prize themselves; do much, that more they may, 

And work for work, not wages ; let tomorrow's 

New drops wash off the sweat of this day's sorrows. 

A long and daily-dying life, which breathes 

A respiration of reviving deaths. 


The monastic day was divided into seven offices and thf 
time at which these were said varied slightly according to th( 
season of the year. The night office began about 2 a.m., when th( 
nuns rose from their beds and entered their choir, where Matins 
were said, followed immediately by Lauds. The next service was 
Prime, said at 6 or 7 a.m., and then throughout the day came 
Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Comphne, with an interval oi 
about three hours between them. The time of these monastic 
Hours (as they were called) changed gradually after the time ol 
St Benedict, and later None, which should have been at 3 p.m., 
was said at noon, leaving the nuns from about 12 midday to 
5 p.m. in the winter and i p.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer for 
work. Compline, the last service of all, was said at 7 p.m. in 
winter and at 8 p.m. in summer, after which the nuns were 
supposed to retire immediately to bed in their dorter, where (in 
the words of the Syon Rule) "none shal jutte up on other 
wylfully, nor spyt up on the stayres, goyng up or down, nor in 
none other place repreuably, but yf they trede itoutforthwyth" !' 
They had in all about eight hours sleep, broken in the middle 
by the night service; and they had three meals, a light repast 
of bread and beer after Prime in the morning, a solid dinner 
to the accompaniment of reading aloud, and a short supper 
immediately after vespers at 5 or 6 p.m.^ 

Except for certain specified periods of relaxation, strict sUence 
was supposed to be observed for a large part of the day, and il 
it were necessary for the nuns to communicate with each other, 
they were urged to do so in an abbreviated form, or by signs. Thus 
in 1319 Bishop Stapeldon of Exeter wrote to the nuns of Polsloe 

that silence be kept in due places, according to the Rule and obser- 
vances of St Benedict; and, if it be desirable that any word be spoker 
in the aforesaid places, for any reasonable occasion, then let it Ix 
gently and so low that it be scarce heard of the other nuns, and in 
as few words as may be needed for the comprehension of those who 
hear; and better in Latin than in any other tongue; yet the Latin 
need not be well-ordered by way of grammar, but thus, candela, 
liber, missale, gradate, pams,vinnrn, cervisia, est, non, sic and so forth^, 

' Aungier, Hist, of Syon Man. p. 385. Compare also the regulations foi 
behaviour in choir, "There also none shal use to spytte ouer the staUes, noi 
in any other place wher any suster is wonte to pray, but yf it anone b« 
done oute, for defoylyng of ther clothes." lb. p. 320. 

^ The hours seem to have varied in length according to the season; see 
Butler, Benedictine Monachism, ch. xvii. ^ Reg. IV. de Stapeldon, p. 316. 





The nuns of Syon had a table of signs drawn up for them by 
Thomas Betsone, one of the brethren of the house, a person of 
extraordinary ingenuity and no sense of humour"^. The sort of 
dumb pandemonium which went on at the Syon dinner table 
must have been more mirth provoking than speech. The sister 
who desired fish would "wagge her hande displaied sidelynges 
in manere of a fissh taill," she who wanted milk would "draw 
her left little fynger in maner of mylkyng"; for mustard one 
would "hold her nose in the uppere part of her righte fiste and 
rubbe it," and another for salt would "philippe with her right 
thombe and his forefynger ouere the left thombe"; another, 
desirous of wine, would "meue her fore fynger vp and downe 
vpon the ende of her thombe afore her eghe"; and the guilty 
sacristan, struck by the thought that she had not provided 
incense for the mass, would "put her two fyngers vnto her nose 
thirles (nostrils)." There are no less than 106 signs in the table 
and on the whole it is not surprising that the Rule enjoins that 
"it is never leful to use them witheoute some reson and profitable 
nede, ffor ofte tyme more hurt ethe an euel sygne than an euel 
worde, and more offence it may be to God"^. 

The time set apart in the monastic day for work was divided 
between brain work and manual labour. In the golden days of 
monasticism the time devoted to reading enabled the monasteries 
to become homes of learning; splendid libraries were collected 
for the use of the monks and in the scriptorium men skilled in 
writing and in illumination copied books and maintained the 
great series of chronicles, in which the middle ages live again. 
The nuns of certain Anglo-Saxon houses, and of certain con- 
tinental houses at a later date, had some reputation for learning. 
In early days, too, the hours devoted to labour were spent in 
the fields, or more often in the workshops of the house ; and those 
who had been skilled in crafts in the world continued to exercise 
them. The nuns of Anglo-Saxon England were famed for the 
needlework executed during the hours of work. Besides this 
labour the Rule ordained that the monks and nuns should take 
it in turns to serve their brethren in the kitchen every week 
and an eleventh century chronicler records "in the monasteries 

' Aungier, op. cit. pp. 405-9. It is unlikely, however, that Betsone 
actually invented any of the signs, for similar lists are to be found in the 
early consuetudinaries of Cluniac houses and other sources. The signs were 
probably to a great extent "common form." ^ lb. p. 298. 


I saw counts cooking in the kitchens and margraves leading the 
pigs out to feed"i. It was by reason of this intellectual and 
manual labour that the early monks rendered, as it were inci- 
dentally, an immense service to civilisation. Their aim and 
purpose was the salvation of their souls, but because the Rule 
under which they lived declared that labour was one of the 
means to that salvation, they added many of the merits of the 
active to those of the contemplative life. The early Benedictines 
were great missionaries, ardent scholars, enlightened landowners 
and even energetic statesmen. The early Cistercians made the 
woods and wildernesses, in which they settled, blossom like a 
rose. But apart from the social services thus rendered to civilisa- 
tion, the threefold division of monastic life into prayer, study 
and labour was vital to monasticism itself, since it afforded the 
essential element of variety in routine. 

The benefits of routine are obvious : any life which exists for 
the regular performance of specific duties, above all any life 
which is carried on in a community, must depend very largely 
upon fixed hours and carefully organised occupations. The Rule 
of St Benedict made a serious attempt to render monastic life 
possible and beneficial to the average human being, by the 
combination of regularity and variety which has been described 
above. There was constant change of occupation, but there was 
no waste and no muddle. It is extremely significant that 
monasticism broke down directly St Benedict's careful adjust- 
ment of occupations became upset. With the growing wealth of 
the monasteries manual labour became undignified ; some orders 
relied on lay brethren, the majority on servants. Gone was the 
day when counts cooked in the kitchens; in the fourteenth 
century monks and nuns paid large wages to their cooks and 
even in a small nunnery it was regarded as legitimate cause for 
complaint not to have a convent servant. Learning also fell 
away after the growth of the universities in the twelfth century ; 
the poverty of the monastic chronicles of the fourteenth and 
fifteenth centuries is one witness to the fact; the necessity to 
send injunctions to nunneries first in French and then in English, 
as the knowledge of Latin and then of French died out in them, 
is another. Of the three occupations, learning, manual labour 

1 Bernold, Chron. (1083) in Mom. Germ. Hist, v, p. 439, quoted in 
Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal, p. 157. 


and divine service, only the last was left. Is it surprising that 
that also began to be looked upon as a weary and monotonous 
routine, when the monks and nuns came to it, not fresh from the 
stimulus of study or of labour, but from indolence, or from the 
worldly pleasures of the tavern, the hunt, the gambling board, 
the flirtation, the gossip, wherewith they often filled the spare 
time, which the wise Benedictine Rule would have filled with 
a change of occupation? 

All safeguards against a petrifying routine were now broken 
down. We are wont to-day to look with disquiet upon the life 
of a clerk in an office, endlessly adding up rows of figures, v/ith 
an interval for luncheon; but the clerk has his evenings, his 
Sundays, his annual holiday, his life as son, or husband, or father. 
For the medieval monk there was no such relaxation. When the 
salutary labour of hand and brain ordained by St Benedict no 
longer found a place in his life, he was delivered over bound 
to an endless routine of dorter, church, frater and cloister, 
which stretched from day to night and from night to day again. 
For nuns the monotony was even greater, for they had lost 
more completely than monks their early tradition of learning 
and they could not pass happy years in study at a university 
(as a few monks from great abbeys were able to do), nor find 
some solace in exercising the functions of a priest; moreover 
women were more apt even than men to enter the religious life 
without any real vocation for it, since there was hardly any 
other career for unmarried ladies of gentle birth. It would be 
an exaggeration to say that this uneventful life was necessarily 
distasteful. To the majority it was doubtless a happy existence; 
monotony appears peace to those who love it. 
No cruel guard of diligent cares, that keep 
Crown'd woes awake, as things too wise for sleep : 
But reverent discipline and religious fear, 
And soft obedience, find sweet biding here; 
Silence and sacred rest; peace and pure joys; 
Kind loves keep house, lie close and make no noise. 

Here behind the walls of the convent "a common grayness 
silvered everything" and all care was remote, save that, never 
to be escaped by womankind, of making two ends meet. 

Nevertheless the danger was there. Only a minority, one 
may be sure, revolted actively against the duties which are 

P.N. 19 


sometimes, most significantly, called " the burthen of religion "i. 
That minority is known to us, for the sinner and the apostate, 
whether inspired by lust or by levity, mere victims to their own 
weakness, or active rebels against an intolerable dulness, have 
left their mark in official documents. But the number can only 
be guessed at of those others, who carried in their hearts for all 
their staid lives the complaint of the Latin song: 

Sono tintinnabulura 
Repeto psalterium, 
Gratum Unquo somnium 
Cum dormire cuperem, 

Heu misella ! 
Nichil est deterius tali vita 
Cum enim sim petulans at lasciva^. 
The bell I am ringing, 
The psalter am singing, 
And from my bed creeping 
Who fain would be sleeping, 

Misery me ! 
O what can be worse than this life that I dree. 
When naughty and lovelorn and wanton I be? 

" Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room" is a charming 
justification of the sonnet, but it is neither good psychology nor 
good history. 

/ It can never be too often repeated that many monks and 
\nuns entered religion as a career while still children, vsdth no 
^particular vocation for the religious life. To such, even though 
they might experience no longing for the forbidden pleasures of 
the world, the monotony of the cloister would often be hard to 
bear. Their young limbs would kick against its restrictions and 
the changing moods of adolescence would turn and twist in vain 
within the iron bars of its unadaptable routine. Even to those 
no longer young happiness would depend at the best upon the 
fostering of a quick spiritual life, at the worst upon lack of 
imagination and of vitality. The undaunted daughter of desires, 
the man in whom religion burned as a strong fire, could find 

1 E.g. a nun asks that sufficient clothes and food be ministered to her 
"ut fortis sit ad subeundura pondus religionis et diuini seruicii." Line. 
Visit. II, p. 5. A bishop orders no nun to be admitted unless she be "talem 
que on era chori... ceteris religionem concernentibus poterit supportare." 
lb. I, p. 53- 

^ Vattasso, Studi Medievali (1904), i, p. 124. Quoted in Mod. Philology 
(1908), v, pp. lo-ii. I have ventured to combine parts of two verses. 


happiness in the hfe. But lesser brethren could not. Ennui, 
more deadly even than sensual temptation, was the devil who 
tormented them. So in the convents of the fourteenth and 
fifteenth centuries, a sympathetic eye and an understanding 
mind will diagnose the fundamental disease as reaction against 
routine by men and women in whom Nature, expelled by a 
pitchfork, had returned a thousand times more strong. 

This reaction from routine took several forms. It is some- 
where at the bottom of all the more serious sins, which the pitch- 
fork method of attaining salvation brought upon human creatures 
with bodies as well as souls. In this chapter, however, we are 
concerned not with these graver faults of immorality, but with 
things less gross, and yet in their cumulative effect no less fatal 
to monastic life. Such was the neglect of that praise of God, 
which was the primary raison d'etre of the monk and nun, so 
that services sometimes became empty forms, to be hurried 
through with scant devotion, occasionally with scandalous ir- 
reverence. Such was the deadly sin of accidie, the name of 
which is forgotten today, though the thing itself is with us stiU. 
Such were the nerves on edge, the small quarrels, the wear and 
tear of communal hfe; such also the gay clothes, the pet animals 
and the worldly amusements, with which nuns sought to enUven 
their existence. For all these things were in some sense a reaction 
from routine. 

Carelessness in the performance of the monastic hours was 
an exceedingly common fault during the later middle ages and 
often finds a place in episcopal injunctions. Sometimes monks 
and nuns "cut" the services, as at Peterborough in 1437, when 
only ten or twelve of the 44 monks came on ordinary days to 
church^, or at Nuncoton in 1440, where many of the nuns failed 
to come to compline, but busied themselves instead in various 
domestic offices, or wandered idly in the garden 2. Often they 

1 Alnwick's Visii^ MS. f. id; but some of these would be absent from the 

2 Jb. £E. yid, 72, For other injunctions against "cutting" services, see 
Heynings, I35iand i^gz {Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. GynewellJ.^^d, 3.ndBokyng- 
ham, i. 397), Elstow 1387 and 1421 (ib. Bokyngham, f. 343 and Line. Visit, i, 
p. 51), Godstow 1279 and 1434 (Reg. J. Peckham, in, p. 846, Lino. Visit, i, 
p. 66), Romsey 1387 (New Coll. MS. f. 84),Canmngton 1351 (Reg. R. of Shrews- 
bury, p. 684),Nunkeeling 1314, Thicket 1309, Yedingham 1314, Swine 1318, 
Wykeham 1314, Arthington 1318 (V.C.H. Yorks. in, pp. 120, 124, 127, 181, 
183, 188), Sinningthwaite 1534 (Yorks. Arch. Journ. xvi, p. 443), etc. 

19 — 2 


came late to matins, a fault which was common in nunneries, 
for the nuns were prone to sit up drinking and gossiping after 
compline, instead of going straight to bedi; and these nocturnal 
carousals, however harmless in themselves, did not conduce to 
wakefulness at one a.m. Consequently they were somewhat 
sleepy, quodammodo sompnolentes , at matins and found an almost 
Johnsonian difficulty in getting up early. At Stainfield in 1519 
Atwater found that half an hour sometimes elapsed between 
the last stroke of the bell and the beginning of the office and 
that some of the nuns did not sing but dozed, partly because 
they had not enough candles, partly because they went to bed 
late; they also performed the offices very neghgently^. But most 
|often of all the fault of monks and nuns lay in gabbhng through 
;the services as quickly as possible in order to get them over. 
They left out syllables at the beginning and end of words, they 
omitted the dipsalma or pausacio between two verses, so that 
one side of the choir was beginning the second half, before the 
other side had finished the first; they skipped sentences; they 
mumbled and slurred over what should have been "entuned in 
their nose ful semely." 

Episcopal injunctions not infrequently animadvert against 
this irreverent treatment of the offices. At Catesby in 1442 
Isabel Benet asserted that "divine service is chanted at so great 
speed that no pauses are made," and at Carrow in 1526 several 
of the older nuns complained that the sisters sang and said the 
service more quickly than they ought, without due pauses. 
A strong injunction sent to Nuncoton in 1531 declares that the 
hours have been " doon with grete festinacon, haste and without 
deuocon, contrarye to the good manner and ordre of religion "3. 

1 See e.g. Line. Visit. 11, pp. i, 8, 67, 131, 133, 134-5, Line. Epis. Reg. 
Memo. Gynewell, i, i\d, Sede Vaeante Reg. (Wore. Hist. Soc), p. 276, 
Reg. Epis. J. Peckham, 11, pp. 651-2, etc. 

* V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 131. For other instances of lateness at matins, see 
Heynings 1442 (Line. Visit. 11, p. 133), Godstow 1432 {Line. Visit, i, p. 66), 
Flixton 1514 (Jessopp, Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich, p. 143), Romsey 1302 
(Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, p. 100), Easebourne 1478, 1524 (Sussex 
Arch. Coll. IX, pp. 17, 26-7), St Radegund's, Cambridge (Gray, Priory of 
St Radegund, Cambridge, p. 36). 

' Line. Visit. 11, p. 48; Jessopp, Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich, p. 209; 
Arch. XLVll, p. 55; compare Romsey 1387, 1507 {New Coll. MS. f. 84; 
Liveing, op. cit. p. 231), St Helen's Bishopsgate, c. 1432 {Hist. MS. Com. 
Rep. IX, App. p. 57). 


Indeed so common was the fault that the Father of Evil was 
obhged to employ a special devil called Tittivillus, whose sole 
business it was to collect the dropped syllables and gabbled 
verses and carry them back to his master in a sack. One rhyme 
distinguishes carefully between the contents of his sack: 

Hii sunt qui psalmos corrumpunt nequiter almos, 
Dangler, cum jasper, lepar, galper quoque draggar, 
Momeler, forskypper, forereynner, sic et overleper, 
Fragmina verborum Tutivillus colligit horum^. 

A holy Cistercian abbot once interviewed Tittivillus; this is 
the tale as the nuns of Syon read it in their Myroure of Oure 
Ladye : 

We rede of an holy Abbot of the order of Cystreus that whyle he stode 
in the quyer at mattyns, he sawe a fende that had a longe and a 
greate poke hangynge about hys necke, and wente aboute the quyer 
from one to an other, and wayted bysely after all letters, and syllables, 
and wordes, and faylynges, that eny made; and them he gathered 
dylygently and putte them in hys poke. And when he came before 
the Abbot, waytynge yf oughte had escaped hym, that he myghte 
have gotten and put in hys bagge ; the Abbot was astoned and aferde 
of the foulenes and mysshape of h3rm, and sayde vnto hym. What 
art thow; And he answered and sayd. I am a poure dyuel, and my 
name ys Tytyuyllus, and I do myne offyce that is commytted vnto 
me. And what is thyne offyce sayd the Abbot, he answeryd I muste 
eche day he sayde brynge my master a thousande pokes full of fayl- 
ynges, and of neglygences in syllables and wordes, that ar done in 
youre order in redynge and in syngynge. And else I must be sore 

Carelessness in the singing of the services was not, however, 
the most serious result of reaction against routine. If the men 
and women of sensibility failed to keep intelligence active in the 
pursuit of spiritual or temporal duties, if they cared no longer 
to use brain and spirit as they performed the daily round, 
accidia^, that dread disease, half ennui and half melancholia, 
which, though common to all men, was recognised as the peculiar 

^ "These are they who wickedly corrupt the holy psalms: the dangler, 
the gasper, the leaper, the galloper, the dragger, the mumbler, the fore- 
skipper, the forerunner and the over leaper : Tittivillus coUecteth the frag- 
ments of these men's words." G. G. Coulton, Med. Gam. p. 423. He also 
collected the gossip of women in church. On Tittivillus see my article in 
the Cambridge Magazine, 1917, pp. 158-60. 

^ Myroure of Oure Ladye, ed. Blunt (E.E.T.S.), p. 54. 

^ Greek aK-qSia; whence acedia or accidia in Latin; English accidie. 
It is a pity that the word has fallen out of use. The disease has not. 


menace of the cloister, lay ever in wait for them. Against this 
sin of intellectual and spiritual sloth all the great churchmen 
of the middle ages inveigh, recognising in it the greatest menace 
of religious life, from which all other sins may follow^. If accidia 
once laid hold upon a monk he was lost; ceasing to perform 
with active mind his religious duties, he would find them a 
meaningless, endless routine, filling him with irritation, with 
boredom and with a melancholy against which he might struggle 
in vain. The fourth century cenobite Cassian has left a detailed 
description of the effects of accidia in the cloister, declaring 
that it was specially disturbing to a monk about the sixth hour 
"like some fever which seizes him at stated times," so that many 
declared that this was " the sickness that destroyeth in the noon 
day," spoken of in the ninetieth psalm^. Many centuries later 
Dante crystallised it in four unsurpassable lines. As he passed 
through the fifth circle of hell he saw a black and filthy marsh, in 
which struggled the souls of those who had been overcome by 
anger; but deeper than the angry were submerged other souls, 
whose sobs rose in bubbles through the muddy water and who 
could only gurgle their confession in their throats. These were the 

' An interesting modern study oi this moral disease is to be found in 
a book of sermons by the late Bishop of Oxford, Dr Paget, The Spirit of 
Discipline (1891), which contains an introductory essay "concerning 
Accidie," in which the subject is treated historically, with illustrations from 
the writings of Cassian, St John of the Ladder, Dante and St Thomas 
Aquinas, in the middle ages, Marchantius and Francis Neumayer in the 
seventeenth century, and Wordsworth, Keble, Trench, Matthew Arnold, 
Tennyson and Stevenson in the nineteenth century. See also Dr Paget's 
first sermon "The Sorrow of the World," which deals with the same subject. 
He diagnoses the main elements oi Accidia very ably: " As one compares the 
various estimates of the sin one can mark three main elements which help 
to make it what it is — elements which can be distinguished, though in 
experience, I think, they almost always tend to meet and mingle, they are 
gloom and sloth and irritation." Op. cit. p. 54. On Accidia, see also H. B. 
Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal (1913), pp. 326—31. During 
the great war the disease of accidie was prevalent in prison camps, as any 
account of Ruhleben shows very clearly. For a short psychological 
study of this manifestation of it, see Vischer, A. L., Barbed Wire Disease 

2 See book X of Cassian's De Coenobiorum Insiitutis, which is entitled 
"De Spiritu Acediae" (Wace and Schaff, Select Library of Nicene and Post- 
Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd ser., vol. xi, Sulpitius Severus, 
Vincent of Lerins and John Cassian, pp. 266 ff. ; chapters i and 11 are para- 
phrased by Dr Paget, op. cit. pp. 8-10); Book IX, on the kindred sin of 
Tristitia is also worthy of study; the two are always closely connected, as 
is shown by the anecdotes quoted below. 



souis of men who had fallen victims to the sin of accidia in their 


Fitti nel lime dicon ; Tristi fummo 

Nel' aer dolce che dal sol s' allegra, 

Portando dentro accidioso fummo: 
Or ci attristiam nella belletta negra. 
Fixed in the slime, they say, " Sullen were we in the sweet air, that is 
gladdened by the sun, carrying lazy smoke in our hearts; now he we 
sullen here in the black mire " ^ 

But the working of the poison is most briUiantly described by 
Chaucer, in his Persones Tale: 

"After the sinnes of Envie and of Ire, now wol I speken of the sinne 
of Accidie. For Envye blindeth the herte of a man, and Ire troubleth 
a man; and Accidie maketh him hevy, thoghtful and wrawe. Envye 
and Ire maken bitternesse in herte; which bitternesse is moder of 
Accidie and binimeth him the love of alle goodnesse. Thanne is Accidie 
the anguissh of a trouble herte. ...He dooth alle thing with anoy and 
with wrawnesse, slaknesse and excusacioun, and with ydelnesse and 
unlust....Now comth Slouthe, that wol nat suffre noon hardnesse ne 
no penaunce.... Thanne comth drede to biginne to werke any gode 
werkes; for certes he that is enclyned to sinne, him thinketh it is so 

greet an empryse for to undertake to doon werkes of goodnesse 

Now comth wanhope, that is despeir of the mercy of God, that comth 
somtyme of to muche outrageous sorwe, and somtyme of to muche 
drede; imagininge that he hath doon so much sinne, that it wol nat 
availlen him, though he wolde repenten him and forsake sinne: 
thurgh which despeir or drede he abaundoneth al his herte to every 
maner sinne, as seith seint Augustin. Which dampnable sinne, if 

that it continue unto his ende, it is cleped sinning in the holy gost 

Soothly he that despeireth him is lyk the coward champioun recreant, 
that seith creant withoute nede. Alias ! alias ! neSeles is he recreant 
and nedeles despeired. Certes the mercy of God is euere redy to every 
penitent and is aboven alle hise werkes.... Thanne cometh sompno- 
lence, that is sluggy slombringe, which maketh a man be hevy and 
dul in body and in soule; and this sinne comth of Slouthe." 

He proceeds to describe further symptoms, 

"Nechgence or recchelesnesse... ydelnesse... the sinne that man clepen 

Tarditas" and "Lachesse, " 

and concludes thus, 

"Thanne comth a manere coldnesse, that freseth al the herte of man. 
Thanne comth undevocioun, thurgh which a man is so blent, as seith 
seint Bernard, and hath swiche langour in soule, that he may neither 
rede ne singe in holy chirche, ne here ne thinke of no devocioun, ne 
travaUle with his handes in no good werk, that it nis him unsavory 
and al apalled. Thanne wexeth he slow and slombry, and sone wol 
^ Dante, Inferno, vii, 1. 121 ff. Translation by J. A. Carlyle. 


be wrooth, and sone is enclyned to hate and to envye. Thanne comth 
the sinne of worldly sorwe, swich as is cleped tristicia, that sleeth man, 
as seint Paul seith. For certes swich sorwe werketh to the deeth of the 
soule and of the body also; for therof comth, that a man is anoyed of 
his owene lyf . Wherfore swich sorwe shorteth ful ofte the lyf of a man, 
er that his tyme be come by wey of kinde"^ 

This masterly diagnosis of the sin of spiritual sloth and its 
branches is illustrated by several stories which bear unmistak- 
ably the impress of a dreadful truth. Johann Busch's account 
of his early temptations and doubts has often been quoted. 
A strong character, he overcame the temptation and emerged 
stronger^. But Caesarius of Heisterbach has two anecdotes of 
weaker brethren which show how exactly Chaucer described the 
anguish of a troubled heart. The first is of particular interest 
to us because it concerns a woman : 

"A certain nun, a woman of advanced age, and, as was supposed, 
of great hoUness, was so overcome by the vice of melancholy (tristitiae) 
and so vexed with a spirit of blasphemy, doubt and distrust, that 
she fell into despair. And she began altogether to doubt those 
things which she had believed from infancy and which it behoved 
her to believe, nor could she be induced by anj'one to take the holy 
sacraments; and when her sisters and also her nieces in the flesh 
besought her why she was thus hardened, she answered " I am of the 
lost, of those who shall be damned." One day the Prior, growing angry, 
said to her, "Sister, unless you recover from your unbeUef, when you 
die I will have you buried in a field." And she, hearing him, was silent 
but kept his words in her heart. One day, when certain of the sisters 
were to go on a journey I know not whither, she secretly followed them 
to the banks of the river Moselle, whereon the monastery is situated, 
and when the ship, which was carr\dng the sisters, put off, she threw 
herself from the shore into the river. Those who were in the ship 
heard the sound of a splash, and looking out thought her body to be 
a dog, but one of them, desiring (by God's will) to know more certainly 
what it was, ran quickly to the place and seeing a human being, 
entered the river and drew her out. Then when they perceived that 
it was the aforesaid nun, alreadv wellnigh drowned, they were all 
frightened, and when they had cared for her and she had coughed up 
the water and could speak, they asked her, "Why, sister, didst thou 
act thus cruelly?" and she repUed, pointing to the Prior, "My lord 
there threatened that I should be buried when dead in a field, where- 
fore I preferred to be drowned in the flood rather than to be buried 

' Chaucer, The Persones Tale, §§ 53-9. 

* See the translation of the episode (from Busch, Chronicon Windes- 
hemense, ed. K. Grube, p. 395) in Coulton, Med. Garner, pp. 641-4. On the 
subject of medieval doubt and despair see Coulton in the Hibbert Journal, 
XIV (1916), pp. 598-9 and From St Francis to Dante, pp. 313-4. 


like a beast in the field." Then they led her back to the monastery 
and guarded her more carefully. Behold what great evil is born of 
melancholy (tristitia). That woman was brought up from infancy in 
the monastery. She was a chaste, devout, stern and rehgious virgin, 
and, as the mistress [of the novices] of a neighbouring monastery told 
me, all the maidens educated by her were of better discipline and more 
devout than others^. 

The other anecdote tells of an old lay brother, who at the end 
of a long life fell into despair : 

"I know not," says Caesarius, "by what judgment of God he was 
made thus sad and fearful, that he was so greatly afraid for his sins 
and despaired altogether of the hfe eternal. He did not indeed doubt 
in his faith, but rather despaired of salvation. He could be cheered 
by no scriptural authorities and brought back to the hope of forgive- 
ness by no examples. Yet he is beheved to have sinned but httle. 
When the brothers asked him, ' What makes you fear, why do you 
despair?' he answered, 'I cannot pray as I was used to do, and so 
I fear hell.' Because he laboured with the vice of tristitia, therefore 
he was filled with accidia, and from each of these was despair born in 
his heart. He was placed in the infirmary and on a certain morning 
he prepared him for death, and came to his master, saying, ' I can no 
longer fight against God.' And when his master paid but little at- 
tention to his words, he went forth to the fish pond of the monastery 
near by and threw himself into it and was drowned^." 

Only a small minority, it is needless to say, was driven to 
this anguish of despair. For the maj ority the strain of conventual 
life found outlet, not in these black moods, but in a tendency to 
bicker one with another, to get excitement by exaggerating the 
small events of daily existence into matter for jealousies and 
disputes. For the strain was a double one; to monotony was 
added the complete lack of privacy, the wear and tear of com- 
munal life; not only always doing the same thing at the same 
time, but always doing it in company with a number of other 
people. The beauty of human fellowship, the happy friendUness 
of hfe in a close society are too obvious to need description. 
For if heuene be on this erthe • and ese to any soule. 
It is in cloistere or in scole • by many skilles I fynde ; 
For in cloistre cometh no man • to chide ne to fi^te. 
But alle is buxomnesse there and bokes • to rede and to lerne. 
In scole there is scorne • but if a clerke wil lerne. 
And grete loue and lykynge • for eche of hem loueth other^. 

1 Caes. of Heist. Dial. Mirac. ed. Strange, i, pp. 209-10. 

2 lb. I. pp. 210-11. For a case of doubt in an anchoress, which, however 
ended well, see ib. i, pp. 206-8. 

2 Langland, Piers Plowman, ed. Skeat, B, passus x, 300-5. 


But it is necessary also to remember the other side of the 
picture. Personal idiosyncrasies were no less apt to jar in the 
middle ages than they are today; there are unfortunates who 
are born to be unpopular; there are tempers which will lose 
themselves; and in conventual hfe there is no balm of solitude 
for frayed nerves. These nuns were very human people ; a mere 
accident of birth had probably sent them to a convent rather 
than to the care of husband and children in a manor-hall; just 
as in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a mere accident 
of birth made one son the squire, another the soldier and a third 
the parson. No special saintliness of disposition was theirs and 
no miracle intervened to render them immune from tantrums 
when they crossed the convent threshold. Nothing is at once 
more striking and more natural than the prevalence of little 
quarrels, sometimes growing into serious disputes, among the 
inmates of monasteries. Browning's Spanish Cloister was no 
mere figment of his inventive brain; indeed it is, if anything, 
less startling than the medieval Langland's description of the 
convent, where Wrath was cook and where all was far from 
"buxomnesse." Certainly Langland's indictment is a violent 
one; the satirist must darken his colours to catch the eye; and, 
had Chaucer been the painter, we might have had a dispute 
couched in more courteous terms and more "estatlich of 
manere." But the satirist's account is significant, because 
his very office demands that he shall exaggerate only what 
exists; his words are a smoke which cannot rise without fire. 
So Langland may speak through the hps of Wrath, with two 
white eyes: 

I have an aunte to nonne • and an abbesse bothe, 

Hir were leuere swowe or swelte • ))an suffre any peyne. 

I haue be cook in hir kichyne • and \>e couent serued 

Many monthes with hem ■ and with monkes bothe. 

I was J>e priouresses potagere • and other poure ladyes 

And made hem ioutes of iangelynge • fat dame lohanne was a 

And dame Clarice a kni3tes dou3ter • ac a kokewolde was hire 

And dame Peronelle a prestes file • Priouresse worth she neuere 
For she had childe in chirityme ■ all owre chapitere it wiste • 
Of wycked wordes I, Wrath • here wortes imade, 
Til "thow lixte" and "thow lixte" lopen oute at ones. 


And eyther hitte other • vnder the cheke ; 

Hadde thei had knyves, by Cryst • her eyther had killed other'. 

From "thow lixte" to "Gr-r-r you swine" how little change! 

Sober records bear out Langland's contention that Wrath 
was at home in nunneries. Some of the worst cases have already 
been described; election disputes, disputes arising from a 
prioress's favouritism, Margaret Wavere dragging her nuns about 
the choir by their hair, and screaming insults at them, Katherine 
Wells hitting them on the head with fists and feet*. Doubtless 
quarrels seldom got as far as blows ; but bad temper and wordy 
warfare were common. Insubordination was sometimes at the 
root of the discord ; nuns refused to submit meekly to correction 
after the proclamation of their faults in chapter, or to obey their 
superiors. The words of another satirist show that the monastic 
vow of obedience sometimes sat lightly upon their shoulders : 

Also another lady there was 

That hy3t dame dysobedyent 

And sche set now3t by her priores. 

Ans than me thow3t alle was schent, 

For sugettys schulde euyr be dylygent 

Bothe in worde, in wylle and dede, 

To plese her souerynes wyth gode entent. 

And hem obey, ellys god forbede. 

And of aUe the defawtes that I cowde se 

Thorowj schewjmg of experience, 

Hyt was one of the most that grevyd me. 

The wantyng of obedyence 

For hyt schulde be chese in consciens 

Alle relygius rule wytnesseth the same 

And when I saw her in no reverence, 

I my3t no lenger abyde for schame, 

For they setten not by obedyence. 

And than for wo myne hert gan blede 

Ne they hadden her in no reuerence, 

But few or none to her toke hede^. 

1 Langland, Piers Plowman, ed. Skeat, B, passus v, 11. 153-65. The 
C text has a variant for the last four lines : 

Thus thei sitte the sustres ■ somtyme, and disputen, 
Til "thow lixt" and "thow lixt" ■ be lady over hem alle; 
And then awake ich, Wratthe • and wold be auenged. 
Thanne ich crie and cracche • with my kene nailes, 
Bothe byte and bete • and brynge forthe suche thewes, 
That alle ladies me lothen • that louen eny worschep. 
It is strange that the same hand which wrote these lines should have 
written the beautiful description of convent life quoted on p. 297. 

2 See above, p. 82 and below, Note F. 

3 From "Why can't I be a nun," Tj'ans. of Philol. Soi;. 1858, Ptii, p. 268. 


Again the colours are darkened, but the eyes of the satirist had 

At St Mary's, Winchester, insubordination was evidently the 
chief fault. William of Wykeham writes to the Abbess : 

By public rumour it has come to our ears that some of the nuns of the 
aforesaid house... care not to submit to or even to obey you and the 
deans and other obedientiaries lawfully constituted by you in those 
things which concern regular observances nor to show them due 
reverence, and that they will not bear or undergo the reproofs and 
corrections inflicted upon them by their superiors for their faults, but 
break out into vituperation and altercation with each other and in 
no way submit to these corrections; meanwhile other nuns of your 
house by detractions, conspiracies, confederacies, leagues, obloquies, 
contradictions and other breaches of discipline (insolenciis) and 
laxities (concerning which we speak not at present) 

neglect the rule of St Benedict and other due observances. The 
Abbess iswarnedto punish the nuns and to enforce the rule more 
firmly than heretofore and to furnish the Bishop with the names 
of rebels. At the same time he addresses a letter to the nuns 
bidding them show obedience to their superiors and receive 
correction humbly "henceforth blaming no one therefore nor 
altercating one v^ith another, saying that these or those were 
badly or excessively punished "'^. It would seem that discipline 
had become lax in the convent and that the Bishop's attempt 
to introduce reform by the agency of the abbess was meeting 
with opposition from unruly nuns. Visitors were forced con- 
stantly to make the double injunction that nuns should show 
obedience to their superiors and that those superiors should be 
equable and not harsh in correction: 

Also we enioyne you, pryoresse,...that oftentymes ye conie; |to the 
chapitere for to correcte the defautes of your susters, and' that as wale 
then as att other tj'mes and places ye treyte your said susters moderlie 
wyth all resonable fauour; and that ye rebuke ne repreue thaym 
cruelly ne feruently at no tyme, specj'ally in audience of seculeres, 
and that ye kepe pryvye fro seculeres your correccyons and actes of 
your chapitere — Also we enioyne yowe of the couent and eueryche 
oon of yowe vndere peyn of imprisonyng, that mekely and buxumly 
ye obeye the prioresse procedyng discretely in hire correccyone, and 
also that in euery place ye do hire dewe reuerence, absteynyng yowe 
fro all elacyone of pryde and wordes of disobeysaunce or debate^. 

^ Wykeham' s Reg. il, pp. 361-2 ( 1 384) . Compare case at Shaftesbury ( 1 298) 
where the nuns had incurred excommunication. Reg. Sim. de Gandavo, p. 14. 

- Line. Visit. 11, p. 8. Compare Winchelsey's injunctions to Sheppey in 
1296. Reg. Roberti Winchelsey , pp. 99-100. 


Sometimes it was one unruly member who set the convent 
by the ears. There is an amusing case at Romsey, which is 
reminiscent of David Copperfield: 

On 16 January 1527 in the chapter house of the monastery of Romsey, 
before the vicar general, sitting judicially. Lady Ahce Gorsyn ap- 
peared and confessed that she had used bad language with her sisters 
[her greatest oath evidently transcended " by seynt Loy "] and spread 
abroad reproachful and defamatory words of them. He absolved her 
from the sentence of excommunication and enjoined on her in penance 
that if she used bad language in future and spread about defamatory 
words of them, a red tongue made of cloth should be used on the barbe 
under the chin {in sua harha alba) and remain there for a month^. 

a kinder punishment than the scold's bridle or the ducking 
stool of common folk. Occasionally an inveterate scold would 
be removed altogether by the Bishop and sent to some convent 
where she was not known; two nuns were transferred from 
Burnham to Goring in 1339 ' ' for the peace and quiet of the house " 
and in 1298 a quarrelsome nun of Nuncoton was sent to Green- 
field to be kept in solitary confinement as long as she remained 
incorrigible, "until according to the disciphne of her order she 
shall know how to live in a community"-. It was more difficult 
to restore peace when a whole nunnery was seething with dispute 
and heart-burnings. General injunctions to cease quarrelling 
would seem to show that this was sometimes the case, and, 
without having recourse to such an extreme instance as that 
of Littlemore in the sixteenth century, it is possible to quote 
from bishops' registers documents which go far to bear out even 
Langland's picture. One such document may be quoted in 

^ Liveing, op. cit. pp. 245-6. The "bad language" may be scolding or 
defamation rather than swearing. It is rare to find a nun accused of using 
oaths. But see the list of faults drawn up for the nuns of Syon Abbey; 
among "greuous defautes" is "if any. take withe. ..any foule worde, 
or else brekethe her sylence, or swerethe horribly be Crista, or be any parte 
of hys blyssed body, or unreuerently speketh of God, or of any saynte, and 
namely of our blessyd lady"; among " more greuous defautes" is "yf they 
swere be the sacramente, or be the body of Cryste, or be hys passion, or be 
hys crosse, or be any boke, or be any other thynge lyke " ; and among "most 
greuous defautes" is "yf any in her madness or drunkenesse blaspheme 
horrybly God, or our Lady, or any of hys sayntes" (Aungier, Hist, of Syon 
Mon. pp. 256, 259, 262). In 1331, on readmitting Isabella de Studley (who 
had been guilty of incontinence and apostasy) to St Clement's York, Arch- 
bishop Melton announced that if she were disobedient to the Prioress or 
quarrelsome with her sisters or indulged in blasphemy he would transfer 
her to another house. V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 130. 

2 V.C.H. Bucks. I, p. 383 and V.C.H. Lines. 11, p. 155. 


illustration, the comperta of Archbishop Giffard's visitation of 

Swine in 1268: 

It is discovered that Amice de Rue is a slanderer and a liar and im- 
patient and odious to the convent and a rebel; and so are almost all 
the convent when the misdeeds of delinquents are proclaimed in 
chapter; wherefore the prioress or whoever is acting for her is not 
sufficient, without the help of the lord archbishop, to make corrections 
according to the requirements of the rule. ...Item, it is discovered that 
three sisters in the flesh and spirit, to wit, Sibyl, Bella and Amy, 
frequently rebel against the corrections of the Prioress, and having 
leagued together with them several other sisters, they conspire against 
their sisters, to the great harm of the regular discipUne; and Alice 
de Scrutevil, Beatrice de St Quintin and Maud Constable cleave to 

them Item, it is discovered that the Prioress is a suspicious woman 

and too credulous and breaks out at a mere word into correction, and 
frequently punishes unequally for the same fault and pursues with 
long rancour those whom she dislikes, until the time of their vindica- 
tion Cometh; whence it befals that the nuns, when they suspect that 
they are going to be burdened with too heavy a correction, procure 
the mitigation of her severity by means of the threats of their relatives. 
Item, it is discovered that the nuns and the sisters are at discord 
in many things, because the sisters contend that they are equal to 
the nuns and use black veils even as the nuns^, which is said not to be 
the custom in other houses of the same order^. 

Apostasy, accidia, quarrels, all rose in part from monotony. 
The majority of nuns were probably content with their life, but 
they strove to bring some excitement and variety into it, not 
only unconsciously by cliques and contentions, but also by a 
conscious aping of the worldly amusements which enlivened 
their mothers and sisters outside the convent walls. The chate- 
laine or mistress of a manor, when not busied with the care of 
an estate, amused herself in the pursuit of fashion; even the 
business-hke Margaret Paston hankered after a scarlet robe. 
She amused herself with keeping pets, those little dogs which 
scamper so gaily round the borders of manuscripts, or play so 

1 In 131 1 Archbishop Greenfield issued a general order that nuns only 
and not sisters were to use the black veil; sisters wore a white veil (V .C.H. 
Yorks. Ill, p. 188 note, and Joiirn. of Education, 1910, p. 841). This order 
was repeated at various houses, which shows that there must have been 
a widespread attempt to usurp the black veil (V.C.H. Yorks. m, pp. 124, 
127, 175, 177, 188). At Sinningthwaite the Prioress was also ordered not to 
place the sisters above the nuns. A common punishment in this district 
was to remove the black veil from a nun and this was reserved for the more 
serious misdeeds. 

2 York Reg. Giffard, pp. 147-8. For further instances, see Note C below. 


gallant a part in romances like the Chatelaine of Vergi. She 
hawked and she hunted, she danced and she played at tables^. 
All these occupations served to break the monotony of daily 
life. The nuns, always in touch with the world owing to the 
influx of visitors and to the neglect of enclosure, remembered , 
these forbidden pleasures. And they sought to spice their - 
monotonous life, as they spiced their monotonous dishes. Gay 
clothes, pet animals, a dance, a game, a gossip, were to them 1 
"a ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for fastyngdayes." So we find 
all these worldly amusements in the convent. 

Dear to the soul of men and women alike, dear to monks 
and nuns as well as to the children of the world, were the gay 
colours and extravagant modes of contemporary dress. Popular 
preachers inveighed against the devils' trappings of their flocks, 
but when those trappings flaunted themselves in the cloister 
there was matter for more than words. As early as the end of 
the seventh century St Aldhelm penned a severe indictment of 
the fashionable nuns of his day: 

A vest of fine linen of a violet colour is worn, above it a scarlet tunic 
with a hood, sleeves striped with silk and trimmed with red fur; 
the locks on the forehead and the temples are curled with a crisping 
iron, the dark head-veil is given up for white and coloured head-dresses, 
which, with bows of ribbon sewn on, reach down to the ground; the 
nails, like those of a falcon or sparrow-hawk, are pared to resemble 

Synods sat solemnly over silken veils and pleated robes with 
long trains ; they shook their heads over golden pins and silver 
belts, jewelled rings, laced shoes, cloth of burnet and of Rennes, 
dresses open at the sides, gay colours (especially red) and fur of 
gris^. High brows were fashionable in the world and the nuns 
could not resist hfting and spreading out their veils to expose 

1 Injunctions against dicing and other games of chance are common in 
the case of monks (see e.g. Line. Visit, i, pp. 30, 46, 77, 89). I have found 
none in nunneries, but a more stately game of skill, the fashionable tables, 
was played by Margaret Fairfax with John Munkton. Above, p. 77. 

^ Quoted from St Aldhelm's De Laudibus Virginitatis in Eckenstein, 
Woman under Mon. p. 115. Compare Bede's account of the nuns of Colding- 
ham some years before: "The virgins who are vowed to God, laying aside 
all respect for their profession, whenever they have leisure spend all their 
time in weaving fine garments with which they adorn themselves like brides, 
to the detriment of their condition and to secure the friendship of men 
outside." Ih. pp. 102-3. 

3 For detailed examples, see Note D below. 


those fair foreheads ("almost a sparine brood, I trowe"); when 
Alnwick visited Goring in 1445 he 

saw with the evidence of his own eyes that the nuns do wear their 
veils spread out on either side and above their foreheads, (and) he 
enjoined upon the prioress. . .that she should wear and cause her sisters 
to wear their veils spread down to their eyes^. 

The words of Beatrix's maid in Much Ado About Nothing spring 
to the mind: "But methinks you look with your eyes as other 
women do." For three weary centuries the bishops waged a holy 
war against fashion in the cloister and waged it in vain, for as 
long as the nuns mingled freely with secular women it was 
impossible to prevent them from adopting secular modes. Occa- 
sionally a conscientious visitor found himself floundering un- 
handily through something very like a complete catalogue of 
contemporary fashions. So Bishop Longland at Elstow in 153 1: 

We ordeyne and by way of Iniuncon commande undre payne of dis- 
obedyence from hensforth that no ladye ne any rehgious suster within 
the said monasterye presume to were ther apparells upon ther hedes 
undre suche lay fashion as they have now of late doon with cornered 
crests, nether undre suche manour of hight shewing ther forhedes 
moore like lay people than rehgious, butt that they use them without 
suche crestes or secular fashions and off a lower sort and that ther 
vayle come as lowe as ther yye ledes and soo contynually to use the 
same, unles itt be at suche tymes as they shalbe occupied in eny handy- 
crafte labour, att whiche tymes itt shalbe lefull for them to turne upp 
the said vayle for the tyme of suche occupacon. And undre like payne 
inoyne that noon of the said religious susters doo use or were here- 
after eny such voyded shoys, nether crested as they have of late ther 
used, butt that they be of suche honeste fashion as other religious 
places both use and that ther gownes and kyrtells be closse afore and 
nott so depe voyded at the breste and noo more to use rede stomachers 
but other sadder colers in the same^. 

It is interesting to conjecture how the nuns obtained these 
gay garments and ornaments. The growing custom of giving 
them a money allowance out of which to dress themselves 
instead of providing them with clothes in kind out of the common 
purse, certainly must have given opportunity for buying the 

' Line. Visit. 11, p. iiS. Similar delecta and injunctions at Catesby, 
Eothwell and Studley (i6. pp. 47, 52; Alnwick's Visit. MS. ff. 38, 26i) and 
at Ankerwyke (quoted above, p. 76). Also at Studley (1531), Archaeol. 
XLVii, p. 55, and Romsey (1523), Liveing, op. cit. p. 244. 

^ Archaeol. XLVii, p. 52. For an equally detailed account see the case 
of the Prioress of Ankerwyke, quoted above p. 76. 


gilt pins, barred belts and slashed shoes which so horrified their 
visitors. We know from Gilles U Muisis that Flemish nuns at 
least went shopping^. But an even more Ukely source of supply 
lies, as we shall see, in the legacies of clothes and ornaments, 
which were often left to nuns by their relatives^. 

Not only in their clothes did medieval nuns seek to enliven 
existence after the manner of their lay sisters. The bishops 
struggled long and unsuccessfully against another custom of 
"Worldly women, the keeping of pet animals^. Dogs were certainly 
" the Tavourite pets. Cats are seldom mentioned, though the three 
anchoresses of the Ancren Riwle were specially permitted to 
keep one*, and Gyb, that "cat of carlyshe kynde," which slew 
Phihp Sparrow, apparently belonged to Carrow; perhaps there 
was spread among the nunneries of England the grisly tradition 
of the Prioress of Newington, who was smothered in bed by 
her cat^. Birds, from the larks of the Abbaye-aux-Dames at 
Caen, to the parrot Vert-Vert at Nevers, are often mentioned*. 
Monkeys, squirrels and rabbits were also kept. But dogs and 
puppies abounded. Partly because the usages of society in- 
evitably found their way into the aristocratic convents, partly 

■^ See below, p. 543. 

^ See below, pp. 325-30. 

° For nunnery p ets_a£-a^Uteraiy theme, see Note Hand for pet animals 
in the nunneries of Eudes Rigaud's diocese see below, p. 662. 

* "Ye shall not possess any beasts, my dear sisters, except only a cat." 
Ancren Riwle, p. 316. At the nunnery of Langendorf in Saxony, however, 
a set of reformed rules drawn up in the early fifteenth century contains the 
proviso "Cats, dogs and other animals are not to be kept by the nuns, as 
they detract from seriousness." Eckenstein, op. cit. p. 415. 

^ " Mem. quod apud manerium deNewenton fuerunt quedam moniales 

Et postea contingit [sic] quod priorissa eiusdem manerii strangulata fuit 
de cato suo in lecto suo noctu et postea tractata ad puteum quod vocatur 
Nunnepet." Quoted from Sprott's Chronicle in The Black Book of St Au- 
gustine's Abbey, Canterbury (British Acad. 1915), i, p. 283. In Thorn's 
Chronicle, however, the crime is attributed to the prioress' cook. See 
Dugdale, Mon. vi, p. 1620. The nuns were afterwards removed to 

' There really seems to have been a parrot at Fontevrault in 1477, to 
judge from an item in the inventory of goods left on her death by the Abbess 
Marie de Bretagne, " Item xviij serviecttes en une aultre piece, led. linge 
estant en ung coffre de cuir bouUy, en la chambre ou est la papegault 
(perroquet) , " Alfred Jubien, L'Abbesse Marie de Bretagne (Angers and 
Paris 1872), p. 156. It is interesting to note that J. B. Thiers, writing ou 
enclosure in 1681, mentions "de belles volieres S, petits oiseaux" as one of 
those unnecessary works for which artisans may not be introduced into 
the cloister. Thiers, De la Cldture, p. 412. 


because human affections will find an outlet under the most 

severe of rules: 

(Objet permis a leur oisif amour, 
Vert- Vert etait Tame de ce s^jour), 

the nuns clung to their "smale houndes." Archbishop Peckham 
had to forbid the Abbess of Romsey to keep monkeys or 
"a number of dogs" in her own chamber and she was charged 
at the same time with stinting her nuns in food; one can guess 
what became of the "rested flesh or milk and wastel-breed"i. 
At Chatteris and at Ickleton in 1345 the nuns were forbidden 
to keep fowls, dogs or small birds within the precincts of the 
convent or to bring them into church during divine service^. 
;This bringing of animals into church was a common custom in 
*the middle ages, when ladies often attended service with dog 
in lap and men with hawk on wrist^; Lady Audley's twelve dogs, 
which so disturbed the nuns of Langley, will be remembered*. 
Injunctions against the bringing of dogs or puppies into choir 
by the nuns are also found at Keldholme and Rosedale early in 
the fourteenth century^. But the most flagrant case of all is 
Romsey, to which in 1387 Wilham of Wykeham wrote as follows : 

^ Reg. Epis. Peckham (R.S.), 11, p. 660. 

2 Dugdale, Mon. 11, p. 619 (Chatteris) and Camb. Antiq. Soc. Proc. 
XLV (1905), p. 190 (Ickleton). 

' A decree of the Council of Vienne (13 11) complains that many church 
ministers come into choir " bringing hawks with them or causing them to be 
brought and leading hunting dogs." Conlton, Med. Gam. -p. ^S8. Similarly 
Geiler on the eve of the Reformation complains, in his Navicula Fatuorum, 
that "some men, when they are about to enter a church, equip themselves 
like hunters, bearing hawks and bells on their wrists and followed by a pack 
of baying hounds, that trouble God's service. Here the bells jangle, there 
the barking of dogs echoes in our ears, to the hindrance of preachers and 
hearers." He goes on to say that the habit is particularly reprehensible 
in clergy. The privilege of behaving thus was an adjunct of noble birth and 
in the cathedrals of Auxerre and Nevers the treasurers had the legal right 
of coming to service with hawk on wrist, because these canonries were 
hereditary in noble families. lb. pp. 684-5. Medieval writers on hawking 
actually advise that hawks should be taken into church to accustom them 
to crowds. " Mais en cest endroit d'espreveterie, le convient plus que devant 
tenir sur le poing et le porter aux plais et entre les gens aux 6glises et 6s 
autres assamblees, et emmy les rues, et le tenir jour et nuit le plus continuel- 
ment que Ten pourra, et aucune fois le perchier emmi les rues pour veoir 
gens, chevaulx, charettes, chiens, et toutes choses congnoistre." Gaces de 
la Bugne gives the same advice. Le Mhiagier de Paris (Paris, 1846), 11, 
p. 296. 

* Below, p. 412. 

= V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, pp. 168, 175. 


Item, because we have convinced ourselves by clear proofs that some 
of the nuns of your house bring with them to church birds, rabbits, 
hounds and such hke frivolous things, whereunto they give more heed 
than to the offices of the church, with frequent hindrance to then- 
own psalmody and that of their fellow nuns and to the grievous peril 
of their souls; therefore we strictly forbid you, all and several, in 
virtue of the obedience due unto us, that you presume henceforward 
to bring to church no birds, hounds, rabbits or other frivolous things 
that promote indiscipline; and any nun who does to the contrary, 
after three warnings shall fast on bread and water on one Saturday 
for each offence, notwithstanding one disciphne to be received pubhcly 
in chapter on the same day Item, whereas through the hunting- 
dogs and other hounds abiding within your monastic precincts, the 
alms that should be given to the poor are devoured and the church and 
cloister and other places set apart for divine and secular services are 
foully defiled, contrary to all honesty, and whereas, through their 
inordinate noise, divine service is frequently troubled, therefore we 
strictly command and enjoin you, Lady Abbess, in virtue of obedience, 
that you remove these dogs altogether and that you suffer them never 
henceforth, nor any other such hounds, to abide \vithin the precincts 
of your nunnery^. 

But the crusade against pets was not more successful than the 
_crusade against fashions. The feminine fondness for something 
small and alive to pet was not easily eradicated and it seems 
that visitors were sometimes obliged to indulge it. The wording 
of Peckham's decree leaves an opening for the retention of one 
humble and very self-effacing Uttle dog, not prone to unseemly 
yelps and capers before the stony eye of my lord the Archbishop 
on his rounds ; Dean Kentwode in the fifteenth century ordered 
the Prioress of St Helen's Bishopsgate, to remove dogs "and 
content herself with one or two "2, and in 1520 the Prioress of 
Flixton was bidden to send all dogs away from the convent 
"except one which she prefers"'. Perhaps the welcome of a 
thumping tail and damp, insinuating nose occasionally overcame 
the scruples even of a Bishop, who probably kept dogs himself 

and mourned 

if oon of hem were deed, 
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte. 

Dogs kept for hunting purposes come into rather a different 

category. It is well known that medieval monks were mighty 

1 New Coll. MS. fi. 88-88c?, translated in Coulton, Soc. Life in Britain 
from the Conquest to the Reformation, p. 397. 

2 Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ix, app. pt. i, p. 57. 
' Jessopp, Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich, p. 191. 


hunters before the Lordi, and the mention of sporting dogs at 
Romsey and at Brewood (where Bishop Norbury found canes 
venatici^) encourages speculation as to whether the nuns also 
were not "pricasours aright" and 

yaf not of that text a pulled hen 
That seith that hunters been nat holy men. 

It is significant that Dame Juhana Berners is supposed by 
tradition (unsupported, however, by any other evidence) to have 
been a prioress of Sopwell. The gift of hunting rights to a nunnery 
is a common one; for instance, Henry II granted to Wix the 
right of having two greyhounds and four braches to take hares 
through the whole forest of Essex^. Doubtless these rights were 
usually exercised by proxy*; but considering the popularity of 
hunting and hawking as sports for women, a popularity so great 
that no lady's education was complete if she knew not how to 
manage a hawk and bear herself courteously in the field, it is 

' Chaucer's description of the monk is well known: 

Therfore he was a pricasour aright; 

Grehoundes he hadde, as swifte as fowel in flight; 

Of priking and of hunting for the hare 

Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare. 
Compare Langland's picture of the monk, riding out on his palfrey from 
manor to manor, " an hepe of houndes at hus ers as he a lord were" (Piers 
Plowman, C Text VI, ii, 157-61). Visitation documents amply bear out 
these accounts; in a single set of visitations (those by Bishops Flemyng 
and Gray of Lincoln during the years 1420-36) we have " Furthermore we 
enjoin and command you all and several... that no canon apply himself in 
any wise to hunting, hawking or other lawless wanderings abroad" (Dun- 
stable Priory 1432); "further we enjoin upon you, the prior and all and 
several the canons of the convent aforesaid... that you utterly remove and 
drive away all hounds for hunting from the said priory and its hmits; and 
that neither you nor any one of you keep, rear, or maintain such hounds by 
himself or by another's means, directly or indirectly, in the priory or with- 
out the priory, under colour of any pretext whatsoever" (Huntingdon 
Priory 1432); "also that hounds for hunting be not nourished within the 
precinct of your monastery " (St Frideswide's Oxford, 1422-3) and a similar 
injunction to Caldwell Priory. Littc. Visit. 1, pp. 27, 47, 78, 97. 

- Wm. Salt Arch. Soc. Coll. i, p. 261. Compare also the provision in one 
of Charlemagne's capitularies: " Ut episcopi et abbates et abbatissae cupplas 
canum non habeant nee falcones nee accipitres," Baretius, Capit. Reg. 
Franc. (1853), p. 64. Some of the birds at Romsey may have been hawks, 
though it is more likely that they were larks and other small pets, such as 
Eudes Rigaud found in his nunneries. 

' V.C.H. Essex, it, p. 123, and see above, p. 105. 

' The nuns of St Mary de Pr6, St Albans, kept a huntsman. V.C.H. 
Herts. IV, p. 430 (note). 


surprising that there is not actual mention of these pastimes 
among^ nuns as well as among monks. 

Besides gay clothes and pets other frivolous amusements 
broke at times the monotony of convent life. Dancing and 
mumming and minstrelsy were not unknown and the nuns shared 
in the merrymaking on feasts sacred and profane, as is witnessed 
by the account rolls of St Mary de Pre (1461-90), with their list 
of payments for wassail at New Year and Twelfth Night, for 
May games, for bread and ale on bonfire nights and for harpers 
and players at Christmas^. In 1435 the nuns of Lymbrook were 
forbidden "all maner of mynstrelseys, enterludes, daunsyng or 
reuelyng with in your sayde holy place "'^, and about the same 
time Dean Kentwode wrote to St Helen's Bishopsgate: "Also 
we enioyne you that all daunsyng and reuelyng be utterly for- 
borne among yow, except Christmasse and other honest tymys 
of recreacyone among yowre self usyd in absence of seculars in 
all wyse"^. The condemnation of dancing in nunneries is not 
surprising, for the attitude of medieval moralists generally to 
this pastime is summed up in Etienne de Bourbon's aphorism, 
" The Devil is the inventor and governor and disposer of dances 
and dancers"*. Minstrels were similarly under the ban of the 
church, and clerks were forbidden by canon law and by numerous 
papal, concihar and episcopal injunctions to hsten to their 
"ignominious art"^ a regulation which, needless to say, went 
unobeyed in an age when many a bishop had his private 
histrio^, and when the same stern reformer Grosseteste, who 
warned his clergy "ne mimis, ioculatoribus aut histrioni- 
bus intendant," loved so much to hear the harp that he kept 
his harper's chamber "next hys chaumbre besyde hys stody "'. 
Langland asserts that churchmen and laymen alike spent on 

1 V.C.H. Herts, iv, p. 431 (note); Dugdale, Mon. ni, pp. 359-60. 

2 Hereford Reg. Thome Spofford, p. 82. (This was combined with an 
injunction against going to " comyn wakes and festes, spectacles and other 
worldly vanytees" outside the convent. Below, p. 377.) 

^ Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 554. 

* Quoted in Coulton, Med. Gam. p. 304. 

' See Chambers, op. cit. i, pp. 38-41. 

« lb. I, p. 56 (note). "The bishops of Durham in 1355, Norwich in 1362, 
and Winchester in 1374, 1422, and 1481 had 'minstrels of honour' like any 
secular noble." 

' lb. I, pp. 39, 56 (notes). 


minstrels money with which they well might have succoured 

the poor: 

Clerkus and knyjtes • welcometh kynges mynstrales, 
And for loue of here lordes ■ lithen hem at festes ; 
Muche more, me thenketh • riche men auhte 
Haue beggars by-fore hem • which beth godes mynstrales^. 

Even in monasteries they found a ready welcome ^ and the re- 
forming council of Oxford passed an ineffectual decree forbidding 
their performances to be seen or heard or allowed before the 
abbot or monks, if they came to a house for alms^. Indeed there 
was sometimes need for care. WTiere but at one of those min- 
strelsies or interludes forbidden at Lymbrook did sister Agnes 
of St Michael's Priory, Stamford, meet a jongleur, who sang 
softly in her ear that Lenten was come with love to town? The 
Devil (alas) had all the good tunes, even in the fifteenth century. 
"One Agnes, a nun of that place," reported the Prioress, "has 
gone away into apostasy cleaving to a harp-player, and they 
dwell together, as it is said, in Newcastle-on-Tyne"*. For her 
no longer the strait discipline of her rule, the black-robed nuns 

' Langland, Piers the Plowman, C, Text viil, i, 97. 

^ "Payments for performances are frequent in the accounts of the 
Augustinian priories at Canterbury, Bicester and Maxstoke and the great 
Benedictine houses of Durham, Norwich, Thetford and St Swithin's, Win- 
chester, and doubtless in those of many another cloistered retreat. The 
Minorite chroniclers relate how, at the coming of the friars in 1224, two of 
them were mistaken for minstrels by the porter of a Benedictine grange near 
Abingdon, received by the brethren with unbecoming glee, and when the error 
was discovered, turned out with contumely," Chambers, op. cit. i, pp. 56-7. 
In the Register of St Swithun's it is recorded under the year 1374 that " on 
the feast of Bishop Alwyn...six minstrels with four harpers performed their 
minstrelsies. And after dinner in the great arched chamber of the lord Prior, 

they sang the same geste And the said jongleurs came from the household 

of the bishop," ib. i, p. 56 (note). See extracts from the account books of 
Durham, Finchale, Maxstoke and Thetford Priories relating to the visits 
of minstrels, ih. 11, pp. 240—6. At Finchale there was even a room called 
" le Playerchambre," ib. 11, p. 244. In 1258 Eudes Rigaud had to order the 
Abbot of Jumifeges "that he should send strolhng players away from his 
premises." Heg. Visit. Arch. Roth. p. 607. At a later date, in 1549, a council 
at Cologne directed a canon against comedians who were in the habit of 
visiting the German nunneries and by their profane plays and amatory 
acting excited to unholy desires the virgins dedicated to God. Lea, Hist, 
of Sacerdotal Celibacy, 11, p. 189. 

' " Histrionibus potest dari cibus, quia pauperes sunt, non quia his- 
triones; et eorum ludi non videantur, vel audiantur vel permittantur fieri 
coram abbate vel monachis." Annales de Burton (Ann. Monast. R. S. I, 
p. 485), quoted Chambers, op. cit. i, p. 39 (note). 

* Alnwick's Visit, f. 83. 


and heaven at the end. For her the life of the roads, the sore 
foot and the light heart; for her the company of ribalds with 
their wenches, and all the thriftless, shiftless player-folk; for 
her, at the last, hell, with "the gold and the silver and the vair 
and the gray, . . .harpers and minstrels and kings of the world "^, 
or a desperate hope that the Virgin's notorious kindness for 
minstrels might snatch her soul from perdition 2. 

But the merrymakers in nunneries were not necessarily 
strange jongleurs or secular folk. The dancing and revelry, which 
were forbidden at Lymbrook and allowed in Christmastime at 
St Helen's, were probably connected with the children's feast of 
St Nicholas. As early as the twelfth century the days immediately 
before and after Christmas had become, in ecclesiastical circles, 
the occasion for uproarious festivities'. The three days after 
Christmas were appropriated by the three orders of the Church. 
On St Stephen's Day (Dec. 26) the deacons performed the service, 
elected their Abbot of Fools and paraded the streets, levying 
contributions from the householders and passers-by ; on St John 
the Evangelist's Day (Dec. 27) the deacons gave way to the 
priests, who "gave a mock blessing and proclaimed a ribald 
form of indulgence " ; and on Innocents' Day it was the turn 
of the choir or schoolboys to hold their feast. In cathedral and 
monastic churches the Boy Bishop (who had been elected on 
December 5th, the Eve of St Nicholas, patron saint of schoolboys) 
attended service on the eve of Innocents' Day, and at the words 
of the Magnificat "He hath put down the mighty from their 
seat" changed places with the Bishop or Dean or Abbot, and 
similarly the canons and other dignitaries of the church changed 
places with the boys. On Innocents' Day aU services, except 
the essential portions of the mass, were performed by the Boy 
Bishop; he and his staff processed through the streets, levying 
large contributions of food and money and for about a fortnight 

^ Aucassin and Nicoleie, ed. Bourdillon (1897), p. 22. 

' See the well-knowB story of " Le Tombeor de Notre Dame " {Romania, 
II, p. 315), and "Du Cierge qui descend! sus la viele au vieleeux devant 
I'ymage Nostre Dame," Gautier de Coincy, Miracles de Nostre Dame, ed. 
Poquet (1859), p. 310. Both are translated in Of The Tumbler of Our Lady 
and Other Miracles by A. Kemp-Welch (King's Classics 1909). 

3 For the following account, see A. F. Leach's article on " The Schoolboy's 
Feast," Fortnightly Review, N.S. Lix (1896), p. 128, and Chambers, op. cit. 
1, ch. XV. 


his rule continued, accompanied by feasting and merrymaking, 
plays, disguisings and dances. These Childermas festivities took 
place in monastic as well as in secular churches, but they seem 
to have been more common in nunneries than in male com- 
munities. Our chief information about the revelries comes from 
Archbishop Eudes Rigaud's province of Roueni; but English 
records also contain scattered references to the custom. Evidently 
a Girl Abbess or Abbess of Fools was elected from among the 
novices, and at the Deposidt she and her fellow novices, or the 
little schoolgirls, took the place of the Abbess and nuns, just as 
the Boy Bishop held sway in cathedral churches, and feasting, 
dancing and disguising brought a welcome diversion into the 
lives of both nuns and children. Even the strict Peckham was 
obliged to extend a grudging consent to the puerilia solemnia 
held on Innocents' Day at Barking and at Godstow (1279), 
insisting only that they should not be continued during the 
whole octave of Childermas-tide and should be conducted with 
decency and in private: 

The celebration of the Feast of Innocents by children, which we do 
not approve, but rather suffer with disapproval, is on no account to 
be undertaken by those children, nor are they to take any part in it, 
until after the end of the vespers of St John the Evangelist's Day; and 
the nuns are not to retire from the office, but having excluded from the 
choir all men and women... they are themselves to supply the absence 
of the little ones lest (which God forbid) the divine praise should 
become a mockery-. 

A more specific reference still is found at Carrow in 1526; 
Dame Joan Botulphe deposed at a visitation that it was cus- 
tomary at Christmas for the youngest nun to hold sway for 
the day as abbess and on that day (added the soured ancient) 
was consumed and dissipated everything that the house had 
acquired by alms or by the gift of friends^. The connection 
between these revels and the Feast of Fools appears clearly in 
the injunction sent by Bishop Longland to Nuncoton about the 
same time : 

1 See below, p, 662. 

- Reg. Epis. J. Peckham, 1, pp. 82-3. For a similar injunction to God- 
stow, see ib. ni, p. 846. At Romsey the Archbishop forbade the festivities 
altogether: " Superstitionem vero quae in Natali Domini et Ascensione 
Ejusdem fieri consuevit, perpetuo condemnamus," ib. n, p. 664. The super- 
stition was probably the election of the youngest nun as abbess. 

' Norwich Visit, pp. 209-10. 


We chardge you, lady priores, that ye suffre nomore hereafter eny 
lorde of mysrule to be within your house, nouther to suffre hereafter 
eny suche disgysinge as in tymes past haue bene used in your mon- 
astery in nunnes apparell ne otherwise^. 

The admission of seculars dressed up as nuns, and of boys 
dressed up as women, the performance of interludes and the 
wild dancing were reason enough for the distaste with which 
ecclesiastical authorities regarded these festivities. For the nuns 
clearly did not exclude strangers as Peckham had bidden. Indeed 
it seems probable that where they did not elect a Girl Abbess, 
they admitted a Boy Bishop, either from some neighbouring 
church, or just possibly one of their own little schoolboys. 
Among the accounts of St Swithun's monastery at Winchester 
for 1441 there is a payment 

for the boys of the Almonry together with the boys of the chapel of 
St EUzabeth, dressed up after the manner of girls, dancing, singing 
and performing plays before the Abbess and nuns of St Mary's Abbey 
in their haU on the Feast of Innocents^; 

and the account of Christian Bassett, Prioress of St Mary de 
Pre, contains an item "paid for makyng of the dyner to the 
susters upon Childermasday iij s iiij d, item paid for brede and 
ale for seint Nicholas clerks iij d"^. The inventories of Cheshunt 
and Sheppey at the time of the Dissolution contain further refer- 
ences to the custom and seem to show that nunneries occasionally 
" ran " a St Nicholas Bishop of their own ; at Cheshunt there was 
found in the dorter "a chisell (chasuble) of white ffustyan and 
a myter for a child bysshoppe at xx d"*, and at Sheppey, in a 
chapel, "ij olde myters for S. Nicholas of fustyan brodered"^. 
These childish festivities sound harmless and attractive 
enough, and modern writers are sometimes apt to sentimentalise 
over their abolition by Henry VHP. But in this, as in his 

1 Archaeol. XLVii, p. 56. On the Lord of Misrule, see Chambers op. cit. 
I, ch. XVII. There is a vivid account (from the Puritan point of view) in 
Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (1583) quoted in Life in Shake- 
speare's England, ed. J. D. Wilson (1915), pp. 25-7. 

* Chambers, op. cit. 1, p. 361 (note i). ^ Dugdale, Mon. in, p. 360. 
^ Cussans, Hist, of Herts., Hertford Hundred, app. 11, p. 268. 

* Walcott, Inventory of Shepey, p. 23. There is perhaps another reference 
in the inventory of Langley in 1485: "iij quesyns (cushions) of olde red 
saye, ij smale quechyns embrodred and ij qwechyns namyde Seynt Nicolas 
qwechyns," Walcott, Inventory of Langley, p. 6. 

' E.g. (besides the well-known case of Dr Rock in The Church of Our 
Fathers), Gayley, Plays of our Forefathers, pp. 67-8, 


injunction of enclosure, Henry was fully in accordance with the 
best ecclesiastical precedent. For the Boy Bishop was originally 
a part of the Feast of Fools and the Feast of Fools had an ancient 
and disreputable ancestry in the Roman Saturnaha. At a very 
early date a regulation made to curtail such performances at 
St Paul's declared that "what had been invented for the praise 
of sucklings had been converted into a disgrace "i. In 1445, at 
Paris, it was stated by the Faculty of Theology at the University 
that the performers 

appeared in masks with the faces of monsters or in the dresses of 
women, sang improper songs in the choir, ate fat pork on the horns 
of the altar, close by the priest celebrating mass, played dice on the 
altar, used stinking incense made of old shoes, and ran about the choir 
leaping and shouting^; 

and about the same time the Synod of Basle had specifically 
denounced the children's festival in hardly less violent terms as 

that disgraceful, bad custom practised in some churches, by which 
on certain high days during the year some with mitre, staff and 
pontifical vestments like Bishops and others dressed as kings and 
princes bless the people; the which festival in some places is called 
the Feast of Fools or Innocents or Boys, and some making games with 
masks and mummeries, others dances and breakdowns of males and 
females, move people to look on with guffaws, while others make 
drinkings and feasts there^. 

It is only necessary to compare these denunciations with such 
accounts of the festivities in nunneries as have survived, to 
understand that the revelling and disguising were less harmless 
than modern writers are apt to represent them. Mr Leach 
attributes the schoolboys' feast to the fact that regular holidays 
were unknown in the medieval curriculum and that the boys 
found in the ribaldries of Childermastide some outlet for their 
long suppressed spirits. Similarly the cramped and solemn 
existence led by the nuns for the rest of the year probably made 
their one outbreak the more violent. Nevertheless one cannot 
avoid feeling somewhat out of sympathy with the bishops. " Dost 
thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more 
cakes and ale?" Nuns were ever fond of ginger "hot i' the 

' Leach, op. cii. p. 137. ' lb. p. 131. 

' Leach, op. cit. p. 137 (from MarUne, in, p. 39). I have slightly altered 
the translation. 



All things are to be common to all. 

Rule oj St Benedict, ch. xxxiii. 

The Rule of saint Maure or of seint Beneit, 
Because that it was old and somdel strait 
This ilke monk laat olde thinges pace 
And held after the newe world the space. 

Chaucer, Prologue, 11. 173-6. 

The reaction from a strict routine of life led monks and nuns to 
a more serious modification of the Rule under which they lived 
than that represented by pet dogs and pretty clothes, which 
were after all only superficial frivolities. They sought also to 
modify two rules which were fundamental to the Benedictine 
ideal. One was the rigidly communal life, the obligation to do 
everything in company with everyone else. The other was the 
obligation of strict personal poverty. A monastery was in its 
essence a place where a number of persons lived a communal 
life, owning no private property, but holding everything in the 
name of the community. The normal routine of conventual life, 
as laid down in the Benedictine Rule, secured this end. The 
inmates of a house spent almost the whole of their time together. 
They prayed together in the choir, worked together in the cloister, 
ate together in the frater, and slept together in the dorter. 
Moreover the strictest regulations were made to prevent the vice 
of private property, one of the most serious sins in the monastic 
calendar, from making its appearance. All food was to be cooked 
in a common kitchen and served in the common frater, in which 
no meat was allowed. All clothes were to be provided out of 
the common goods of the house, and it was the business of the 
chamberer or chambress to see to the buying of material, the 
making of the clothes and their distribution to the religious; so 
carefully was proprietas guarded against, that all old clothes 
had to be given back to the chambress, when the new ones were 


distributed. Above all it was forbidden to monks and nuns to 
possess and spend money, save what was delivered to them by 
the superior for their necessary expenses upon a journey^. 

But this combination of rigid communism with rigid personal 
poverty was early discovered to be irksome. It seems as though 
the craving for a certain privacy of life, a certain minimum of 
private property, is a deeply rooted instinct in human nature. 
Certainly the attempt of monasticism to expel it with a pitchfork 
failed. Step by step the rule was broken down, more especially 
by a series of modifications in the prescribed method of feeding 
and clothing the community. Here, as in the enclosure question, 
the monks and nuns came into conflict with their bishops, 
though the conflict was never so severe. Here also, the result of 
the struggle was the same. A steady attempt by the bishops 
to enforce the rule was countered by a steady resistance on the 
part of the religious and the end was usually compromise. 

The most marked breakdown of the communal way of hfe 
in the monasteries of the later middle ages is to be seen in the 
gradual neglect of the frater, in favour of a system of private 
messes, and in the increasing allocation of private rooms to 
individuals. The strict obligation upon all to keep frater daily 
was at first only modiiied in favour of the head of the house, 
who usually had her own lodgings, including a dining hall, in 
which the rule permitted her to entertain the guests who claimed 
her hospitality and such nuns as she chose to invite for their 
recreation. From quite early times, however, there existed in 
many houses a room known as the misericord (or indulgence), 
where the strict diet of the frater was relaxed. Here the occu- 
pants of the infirmary, those in their seynies and all who needed 
flesh meat and more delicate dishes to support them, were served. 
From the fourteenth century onwards, however, the rules of 
diet became considerably relaxed and flesh was allowed to every- 
one on three days a week 2. This meant that the misericord was 
in constant use and in many monasteries the frater was divided 
into two stories, the upper of which was used as the frater 
proper, where no meat might be eaten, and the lower as a miseri- 

^ On Benedictine poverty, see Dom Butler, Benedictine Monachism, 
ch. X. 

' Thealterationwasmadeevenby the Cistercians in 1335. See Line. Visit. 
I, p. 238 {under Misericord). Among Black Monks it began much earUer. 


cord}. According to this arrangement a nun might sometimes be 
dining in the upper frater, sometimes in the misericord and 
sometimes in the abbess' or prioress' lodgings; and, of these 
places, there was a distinct tendency for the upper frater to , 
fall into disuse, since it could in any case only be used on fish 
(or, according to later custom, white meat) days. 

But a habit even more subversive of strictly communal life 
and more liable to lead to disuse of the frater was rapidly 
spreading at this period. This was the division of a nunnery 
into familiae, or households, which messed together, e2ich familia 
taking its meals separately from the rest. The common fratfr 
was sometimes kept only thrice a week on fish days, sometimes 
only in Advent and Lent, sometimes (it would seem) never. This 
meant the separate preparation of meals for each household, a 
practice which, though uneconomical, was possible, because each 
nun's food allowance was fixed and could be drawn separately. 
Moreover, as we shall see hereafter, the growing practice of 
granting an annual money allowance to each individual, though 
used for clothes more often than for food, enabled the nuns to' 
buy meat and other delicacies (if not provided by the convent) 
for themselves. The aristocratic ladies of Polsloe even had their 
private maids to prepare their meals ^. 

This system was evidently well established at a comparatively 
early date. It is mentioned in Peckham's injunctions in 1279 
and in Exeter and York injunctions belonging to the early years 
of the fourteenth century. To illustrate how it worked, we may 
analyse the references to familiae in Alnwick's visitations of the 
diocese of Lincoln (1440-5)^. The number of households in a 

^ Line. Visit, i, p. 238. Alnwick's visitations sometimes mention this 
division of the frater. " Also she prays that frater may be kept every day, 
since there is one upper frater wherein they feed on fish and food made with 
milk, and another downstairs, wherein they feed of grace on flesh" (Nuncoton 
1440). "Also she says that they feed on fish and milk foods in the upper frater 
and on flesh in the lower" (Stixwould 1440). Alnwick's Visit. MS. S. jid, 76. 

^ " Et qe nule Dame de Religion ne mange hors du Refreytour en 
chambre severale si ceo ne soit en compaignie la Priouresse, ou par maladie 

ou autre renable encheson Item, purceo qe ascune foitz ascunes Dames de 

vostre ReUgion orent lur damoiseles severales por faire severalement lur 
viaunde, si ordinoms, voloms et establioms qe totes celles damoiseles soyent 
de tut oste de la cusine, et qe un keu covenable, qi eit un page desoutz lui 
soit mys por servir a tut le Covent" (1319). Exeter Reg. Stapeldon, pp. 317-8. 
Compare V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 165 (Hampole 1411). 

' For the following references, see Line. Visit. 11, pp. 46, 8g, 114, 117, 
119, 121, 175; Alnwick's Visit. MS. ff. ^id, 76, 77, 83. 


nunnery necessarily differed with the size of the house and it is 
not always easy to determine the proportion of households to 
nuns, because internal evidence sometimes shows that all the 
inmates were not present and enumerated at the visitation. Thus 
at Elstow the abbess "says that there are five households of 
nuns kept in the monastery, whereof the first is that of the 
abbess, who has five nuns with her; the second of the prioress, 
who has two; the third of the subprioress, who has two; the 
fourth of the sacrist, who has three; and the fifth of Dame 
Margaret Aylesbury, who has two " ; but only thirteen nuns gave 
evidence^. In this house the frater was kept on certain days of 
the week, one nun deposing "that on the days whereon they 
eat together in frater, they eat larded food in the morning and 
sup on flesh, and they eat capons and other two-footed creatures 
in frater." At Catesby the prioress deposed that she had four 
nuns in her familia and that there were three other households 
in the cloister. At Stixwould there were "five separate and 
distinct households"; at Nuncoton there were three; at St 
Michael's Stamford, the prioress and subprioress each had one, 
but all ate together in the frater on fish-days ; at Stainfield the 
prioress, the cellaress and the nun-sisters each kept a house- 
hold. At Gokewell and Langley the nuns were said to keep 
divers households "by two and two " and at Langley the prioress 
added, "but they do eat in the frater every day; also she says 
that she herself has three women who board with her and the 
subprioress one; also she says that the nuns receive naught from 
the house but their meat and drink and she herself keeps one 
household on her own account. At Gracedieu the prioress 

that frater is not kept nor has it been kept for seven years and that 
the nuns sit in company with secular folk at table in her hall every 
day and that they have reading during meals ; also she says there are 
two households only in the house, to wit in her hall and the infirmary, 
where there are three at table together ; 

here the prioress' hall simply took the place of the frater. There 
were four households at Godstow and apparently several at 

This division into households which messed separately went 
' Pupils or boarders may account for these discrepancies. 


hand in hand with another practice, which also softened the 
rigours of a strictly communal life, to wit the allocation of 
separate rooms to certain nuns. The obedientiaries of a house 
often had private offices, or checkers, in which to transact their 
business, and the custom grew by which the head of familia 
had her own room, in which her household dined. The visitation 
reports continually refer to these private cells and to their use 
as dining rooms and places of reception for visitors. Sometimes 
the nuns even slept in them, though the dorter was always much 
more strictly kept than the frater; at Godstow in 1432 for 
instance. Bishop Gray enjoins "that the beds in the nuns' 
lodgings {domicilia) be altogether removed from their chambers, 
save those for small children" (apparently their pupils) "and 
that no nun receive any secular person for any recreation in the 
nuns' chambers under pain of excommunication "i. Some light 
is thrown upon these camerae by the inventories of medieval 
nunneries. Thus the inventory of the Benedictine Priory of 
Sheppey made at the Dissolution describes the contents of "the 
greate chamber in the Dorter," which was used as a treasury 
in which to keep the linen, vestments and plate of the house, 
and in which one of the nuns Dame Agnes Davye seems to have 
slept; there follows a description of the chambers of eight nuns, 
with the furniture in each, from which it is clear that they had 
brought their own furniture with them to the monastery. These 
"chambers" may have been separate rooms or may have been 
partitions of the dorter, but if the latter they were evidently 
so large as to be to all intents and purposes separate rooms, for 
the furniture commonly includes painted cloth or paper hangings 
for the room, a chest and a cupboard, besides the bed; in three 
there is mention of windows and in two of fire irons. The most 
likely conjecture is that the dorter was used as a treasury and 
bedroom for one nun and the other chambers are separate 
rooms^. At some other houses the dorter is mentioned but was 
clearly divided into separate cells by wainscot partitions, and 
the wainscotting was sometimes sold at the Dissolution^. 

1 Line. Visit. I, p. 67 (and note 3); compare V.C.H. Yorks. in, p. 181. 

^ Walcott, M. E. C, Inventories of ...the Ben. Priory of . . .Shepey for Nuns 
{Arch. Cant. 1869), pp. 23 ff. 

' E.g. at Gracedieu " The dorter, item ther three nunnes selles whyche as 
sould for 30 s." Nichols, Hist, and Anliq. of Leic. (1804), in, p. 653; at 


The attitude of ecclesiastical authorities to the modification 
of the communal rule involved m familiae and camerae was, for 
various reasons, one of strict disapproval. The custom of pro- 
viding separate messes was extremely uneconomical ; the passing 
of much time in private rooms was open to suspicion, especially 
when male visitors were received there; communal life was an 
essential part of the monastic idea; finally the amenities of 
private life were apt (as we shall see) to bring in their train the 
amenities of private property. The policy of the bishops was, 
for all these reasons, to restore communal life. They made 
general injunctions that f rater and dorter should duly be kept 
by all the nuns, they made special injunctions for the abolition 
of separate households, and above all they condemned private 
rooms : 

"Also we enioyne yow, pryoresse," writes Alnwick to Catesby in 1442, 
"that ye dispose so for your susters that the morne next aftere 
Myghelmasse day next commyng wythe owten any lengare delaye, 
ye and thai aftere yowre rewle lyfe in commune, etyng and drynkyng 
in con house, slepyng in oon house, prayng and sarufyng [serving] 
God in oon oratorye, levyng vtterly all pryuate hydles [hiding-places], 
chaumbres and syngulere housholdes, by the whiche hafe comen and 
growen grete hurte and peryle of sowles and noyesfuUe sklaundere 
of your pryorye^. 

Catesby where the " sells in the dorter were sold at 6s. 8rf. apiece," Archaeo- 
logia, XLiil, p. 241. In theory the nuns were supposed to get up and lie 
down in full view of each other and curtains were forbidden by Woodlock 
at Romsey in 131 1. Liveing, op. cit. p. 104. On the other hand at Redling- 
field in 15 14 a nun complained that "sorores non habent curricula inter 
cubilia, sed una potest aliam videre quando surgit vel aliquid aliud facit" 
and the Bishop ordered the Prioress to provide curtains between the cubicles 
in the dorter. Jessopp, Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich (Camden Soc), pp. 139-40. 
Dom Butler thus traces the transition from the open dorter to private cells : 
open dorter; side partitions between the beds; curtains in front; a latticed 
door in front, making a cubicle; a solid door with a large window; the 
window grew smaller and smaller until it became a peephole; the dorter 
became a gallery of private rooms. Downside Review (1899), pp. 119-21. 

1 Line. Visit. 11, pp. 51-2. See also among many other injunctions and 
references to the custom the following: Gracedieu (1440-1), ib. 11, p. 125; 
Godstow (1432), ib. I, pp. 67-8; Barking (1279) ; Wherwell (1284), Reg. Epis. 
Johannis Peckham, i, p. 84, 11, p. 653; Hampole (1311), V.C.H. Yorks, 
in, p. 181; Swine (1318), ib. p. 163; Nunappleton (1346 and 1489), ib. 
pp. 171-2; Fairwell (1367), Reg. Stretion of Lichfield, p, 119; Romsey (1387 
and 1492), New Coll. MS. fl. 85, 85^, 86, Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, 
p. 218; Aconbury (1438), Reg. Spofford of Hereford, p. 224; Stbcwould (1519), 
V.C.H. Linos. 11, p. 148; Sinningthwaite (1534), Yorks. Arch. Journ. XVI, 
p. 441 . Sometimes the system can be traced in one house over a long period 
of years. At Elstow, for instance, in 1387, Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, 


But such injunctions were not easily enforced, and the pohtic 
bishops sometimes tried to reduce rather than to abohsh the 
households and private rooms. It was often necessary — and 
indeed reasonable— to recognise the three familiae of the abbess' 
or prioress' lodgings, the misericord or infirmary and the frater^. 
Sometimes the bishops tried to enforce the rule, laid down by 
the legate Ottobon (1268), to hmit the number who dined at 
the superior's table, viz. that at least two-thirds of the convent 
were to eat each day in the f rater ^ At Godstow Bishop Gray, in 
1432, allowed three households besides that of the frater'. The 
condemnation of private rooms, and more especially of the 
reception of visitors therein, was more severe; but here too, it 

f. 343; in 1421-2, Line. Visit, i, pp. 50, 51; in 1432, ib. i, p. 53; in 
1442-3, J6. II, p. 89; and in i53i,yjre^aeo?o^ia,XLVii,p. 51. For an admonition 
to a nun by name see " Moneatis insuper dominam Johannam de Wakefelde 
commonialem quod illam cameram quam modo inhabitat contra debitam 
honestatem religionis predicte solitarie commorando omnino dimittat et 
sequatur conventum assidue tam in choro, claustro, refectorio et dormitorio 
quam in ceteris locis et temporibus opportunis, prout religionis convenit 
honestati" (Kirklees 1315), Yorks. Arch. Journ. xvi, p. 359. 

^ See, for instance, Longland's careful injunction to Elstow in 1531; 
"Foras moche as the very ordre off sainct benedicte his rules ar nott ther 
obserued in keping the ffratrye att meale tymes...butt customably they 
resorte to certayn places within the monasterye called the housholdes, 
where moche insolency is use contrarye to the good rules of the said religion, 
by reason of resorte of seculars botli men women and children and many 
other inconvenyents hath thereby ensewed...we inioyne...that ye lady ab- 
besse and your successours see that noo suche householdes be then kepte 
frome hensforth, butt oonly oon place which shalbe called the mysericorde, 
where shalbe oon sadde lady of the eldest sorte oversear and maistres to 
all the residue that thidre shall resorte, whiche in nombre shall nott passe 
fyve att the uttermoost, besides ther saide ladye oversear or maistres and 
those fyve wekely to chaunge and soo...all the covent have kepte the same, 
and they agen to begynne and the said gouernour and oversear of them 
contynally to cont5mue in thatt roome by the space of oon quarter of a 
yere, and soo quarterly to chaunge att the nominacon and plesure of the 
ladye abbesse for the tyme being. Over this it is ordered undre the said payne 
and Iniunction that the ladye abbesse haue no moo susters from hensforth 
in hir householde butt oonly foure with hir chapleyne and likewise wekely 
to chaunge till they have goon by course thrugh the hole nomber off susters, 
and soo a;en to begynne and contynue. Archaeologia, XLVii, p. 51. 

2 Wilkins, Cone. 11, p. 16. See also " Et fetez qe lez deuz parties du covent 
a meyns mangent checun jour en le refreytour" (Wroxall 1338); Sede 
Vacante Reg. (Wore), p. 276; cf. Elstow (c. 1432), Line. Visit, i, p. 53. It is 
often accepted that the nuns shall keep frater only on the three fish days, 
but see Gray's injunction to Delapr6 Abbey (c. 1432--3) enjoining its ob- 
servance on the three accustomed days (Sunday, Wednesday and Friday) 
and on Monday as well. Line. Visit, i, p. 45. 

3 Ih. I, p. 68. 


was necessary in large convents for the obedientiaries to have 
their offices, and other individuals were sometimes given special 
permission to use separate catnerae. Some bishops allowed 
them to sick nuns, but others enforced the use of the common 

It has already been said that this approximation to private 
life was bound to bring with it an approximation to private 
property and it remains now to analyse the process by which 
these new methods of providing food, and even more effectively, 
new methods of providing clothes, resulted in a spread of 
proprietas, which was considered perfectly legitimate by the 
nuns and within limits condoned by the bishops. The impression 
left upon the mind by a study of monastic records during the 
last two centuries of the middle ages is that in many houses 
the rule of strict personal poverty was in practice almost com- 
pletely abrogated, for it is quite obvious that the nuns had the 
private and individual disposal of money and goods. Indeed 
some convents seem almost like the inmates of a boarding house, 
each of whom receives lodging and a certain minimum of food 
from the house, but otherwise caters for herself out of her 
private income. This is a considerable departure from the rule 
of St Benedict, and it is worth while to analyse the sources from 
which the nuns drew the money and goods of which they 
disposed. These sources may be classified under five headings: 
(i) the annual allowance of pocket money (called peculium) 
which was allowed to each nun from the funds of the house and 
out of which she had to provide herself with clothes and other 

''■ See, for instance, Bokyngham's injunction to Heynings in 1392: 
" Item that no nun there shall keep a private chamber, but that all the nuns, 
who are in good health, shall he and sleep in the dorter and those who are 
ill in the infirmary, saving dame Margaret Darcy, nun of the aforesaid house, 
to whom on account of her noble birth we wish for the time being to allow 
that room which she now occupies, but without any service of bread and 
beer, save in case of manifest illness," Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, 
i. 397^. But see Gynewell's injunctions to the convent in 1351. Line. Epis. 
Reg. Memo. Gynewell, f. -i^d. For the use of separate rooms allowed to ill 
nuns, see Nunappleton (1489), V.C.H. Yorks. iii, p. 172. At Romsey in 
1507 the nuns, under the eye of the visitor, " concluded and provided that 
Joan Patent, nun, who had hurt her leg, by her consent shall in future have 
meals in her own chamber and shall daily have in her chamber the right of 
one nun." Uveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, p. 230. But usually the use 
of the common infirmary is enjoined. Separate lodgings were also allowed 
to ex-superiors after resignation. See above, p. 57. 


necessities; (2) pittances in money; (3) gifts in money and kind 
from friends; (4) legacies; (5) the proceeds of their own labour. 

(i) The practice of giving a peculium in money out of the 
common funds of the house to monks and nuns began at quite 
an early date (it is mentioned at the Council of Oxford in 1222) 
and was so much an established custom in the fourteenth and 
fifteenth centuries that to withhold it was considered by bishops 
a legitimate cause of complaint against superiors. The amount 
of the peculium varied at different houses. In the majority of 
cases it was intended to be used for clothes and its payment is 
sometimes entered in account roUs. At Gracedieu the nuns had 
"salaries" of 6s. ^d. a year each for their vesture and the careful 
treasuress enters all their names^. At St Michael's, Stamford, 
a chambress' account, which has been preserved among the 
treasuress' accounts, shows that in 1408-9 the prioress was 
paid 5s. for her "camise" and all the other eleven nuns 4s. 
each, while the two lay sisters had 3s. each^. Similarly at St 
Radegund's, Cambridge, a certain pension from St Clement's 
Church was ear-marked for the clothing of the nuns and was 
paid over directly to them^; and the Prioress of Catesby in 
1414-5 includes under "customary payments" money paid 
"to the lady Prioress and her six nuns and to one sister and her 
three brethren by the year for clothing"*. The fact that the 
■peculium was a payment made from the common funds and not 
the privately owned income of an individual allowed it to escape 
the charge of proprietas, but it was nevertheless an obvious 
departure from the Benedictine rule, which forbade the individual 
disposal of property and made quite different arrangements for 
the provision of clothing. 

(2) Another class of payments made to individuals from the 
convent funds was that of pittances. A pittance was originally 
an extra allowance of food and it was quite common for a 
benefactor to leave money to a convent for a pittance on the 
anniversary of his death. These pittances were, however, some- 
times paid in money and most account rolls will provide examples 
of both. The nuns of Barking receive " Ruscheaw silver" as well 

1 P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1257/10, &. 46, 119, 170, 214. 

2 P.R.O. Mins. Accts. 1260/14. 

' Gray, Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge, pp. 27, 147, 155, 163, 171. 
* Baker, Hist, of Northants. i, p. 280. 


as the little pies called "risshowes" in Lent; the nuns of St 
Mary de Pre (St Albans) had "Maundy silver" as well as ale 
and wine on Maundy Thursday; the nuns of St Michael's 
Stamford receive their pittances sometimes in money, sometimes 
in spices or pancakes, wine or beer. The nuns of Romsey had 
a pittance of 6d. each on the feast of St Martin and another of 
6d. each "when blood is let"^. 

(3) The third source from which nuns obtained private pos- 
sessions lay in the gifts, both in money and in kind bestowed 
upon them by their friends. It has already been shown, in 
Chapter I, that there was a growing tendency in the later 
"middle ages for a nun to be supported by means of an annuity, 
paid by her relatives and often ending with her life. The 
fact that these annuities were ear-marked for the support of 
individuals must have increased the temptation to regard 
them as the property of those individuals, a temptation which 
was not present in the old days when an aristocratic nun brought 
with her a grant of land to the house. One is tempted to con- 
jecture that individuals occasionally retained in their own hands 
the expenditure of part at least of their annuities. Specific 
information from Enghsh sources is unfortunately rare; but in 
the diocese of Rouen in the middle of the thirteenth century 
Archbishop Eudes Rigaud sometimes found it necessary to 
enjoin that certain nuns who possessed rents which were reserved 
for their own use, should either transfer them to the common 
funds, or else dispose of them only with the consent of the 
prioress, a significant modification, which suggests that he was 
unable to eradicate a deeply rooted custom, although it was 
strictly against the rule^. It was some twenty years later 
(c. 1277) that Bishop Thomas of Cantilupe, writing to the nuns 
of Lymbrook, enjoined: 

Let none of you keep in her own hand any possession or rent for 
clothing and shoeing herself, even with the consent of the prioress, 
albeit such possession or rent may be given to her by parents or 
friends, because the goods of your community suffice not thereto; 
but let it be given up wholly to your prioress, that out of it she may 

' Reg. J. de Poniissara, I, p. 126. William of Wykeham writes to 
Wherwell in 1387 concerning the abbess' illicit detention of "certain 
distributions and pittances as well in money as in spices," which divers 
benefactors had endowed. New Coll. MS. f. 8g v". 

^ See below, p. 653.. 


minister to those to whom the gift was made, according to their needs ; 
otherwise tliey may easily fall into the sin of property and a secular 
craving for gifts, thus rashly violating their vow^. 

There are also occasional references to "poor" nuns, without 
such annuities or dress-allowances, which suggest that the an- 
nuitants had personal disposal of their own money. Thus John 
Heyden, esq., in 1480, bequeaths "to every nun in Norfolk not 
having an annuity 4od"2^ and Bishop Gray in 1432 refers to 
"a. certain chest within the monastery [of Godstow] for the 
relief of needy nuns," to which the sum of a hundred shillings 
was to be restored^ 

But whether or not nuns were in the habit of retaining in 
their own possession regular annuities, it is plain that they did 
so retain the various gifts in kind and in money, brought to 
them from time to time by their friends; and, judging from the 
constant references in the visitation reports, these presents must 
have been fairly numerous. They varied from the gifts, rewards, 
letters, tokens and skins of wine, which the gatekeeper of God- 
stow smuggled in to the nuns from the scholars of Oxford, to the 
more sober presents of money, clothes and food given to them 
by fond relatives for their relief "as in hire habyte and suste- 

(4) One kind of gift deserves, however, a more careful con- 
sideration, for the preservation of many thousands of medieval 
wills allows us to speak in detail of legacies to individual nuns, ^• 
which occur sometimes in company with legacies to the whole 
community, sometimes alone. These bequests took many dif- 
ferent forms. Sometimes a father leaves an annuity for the 
support of his daughter in her convent*. More frequently a 
nun becomes the recipient of a lump sum of money and from 
the wording of the legacies it is perfectly clear that these sums 
are to be delivered into her own hands for her own use. Let us, 
for instance, analyse the legacies left by Sir John Depeden, a 
northern knight who was a good friend to poor nuns. He first 
of all leaves twenty shiUings each to the following twelve 

^ Reg. Thome de Cantilupo, p. 202. Compare Archbishop Winchelsey's 
injunction to Sheppey (1296) "ne qua moniahs pecuniam vel aliam rem 
sibi donatam aut aliqualiter adquisitam sibi retineat sine expressa licencia 
prlorisse " (a loophole). Reg. Rohevti Winchelsey, p. roo. 

2 W. Rye, Carrow Abbey, app. ix, p. xix. 

' Line. Visit, i, p. 68. * See above, pp. 15, 17, 18. 


nunneries, that they may pray for his soul and his wife's : Esholt 
Arthington, Wilberfoss, Thicket, Moxby, Kirklees, Yedingham, 
Clementhorpe, Hampole, Keldholme, Marrick (all in Yorkshire) 
and Burnham (in Buckinghamshire). He then continues: 
And I give and bequeath to dame Joan Waleys, nun of Watton, to 
her own use {ad usum suum propnum), 40s. And I give and bequeath 
to dame Margaret Depeden, nun of Barking, to her own use, 5 marks 
and one salt cellar of silver. And I give and bequeath to Elizabeth, 
daughter of John FitzRichard, nun of Appleton, to her own use, 
40S. ; 

moreover he leaves to the Prioress of the last mentioned house 
6s. d>d. and to each nun there 2s.i There is an obvious distinction 
here between the lump sums left to the common funds of the 
twelve nunneries grouped together and the gifts to individuals 
which follow. It is moreover quite common for a testator, who 
wishes to give money in charity to a whole house (as distinct 
from one who makes a bequest to a relative or friend therein), 
to distinguish the amounts to be paid to the prioress and to 
each of the nuns. Thus John Brompton, merchant of Beverley 
(n.d., c. 1441-4) while leaving a lump sum of 20s. to the nuns 
of Watton "for a pittance," los. to the nuns of Nunkeeling and 
5s. to the nuns of Burnham, thus provides for all the inmates 
of Swine: 

Item I bequeath to the Prioress of Swine, 3s. 4^., and to each nun of 
the said house 25., and to the vicar there 35. -^d. and to each chaplain 
there celebrating divine service in the churches of the said town 121^., 
item to Hamond, servant there izd., and to each woman serving the 
aforesaid nuns within the aforesaid abbey, 6d.^ 

Thus also James Myssenden of Great Limber (1529) distinguishes 
between the convent and the individual nuns of Nuncoton: "To 
the monastery of Cotton, 3I. 6s 8d, to Dame Johan Thomson, 
prioress of the same 40s, to Dame Margaret Johnson 6s 8d, to 
Dame Elynor Hylyarde 6s 8d, to every other nun of the convent 
I2d " ; and Dame Jane Armstrong, vowess, of Corby, in the same 
year leaves the nuns of Sempringham 6s. 8^., "of which Dame 
Agnes Rudd is to have 4od " '. Similar instances may be multiplied 
from any collection of wiDs^. 

1 Test. Ebor. i, pp. 296-7. ^ lb. 11, p. 97. 

' Lincolnshire Wills, ed. A. R. Maddison (1880), pp. 4, 6. 
* See, for example, Test. Ebor. i, pp. 6, 9, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 31, 
43. 54. 62, 90, 98, 109, 143, 166, 179, 216, 292, 337, 345, 349, 363, 376, 382 


Moreover it seems plain that the money thus willed was ( 
actually paid over to individuals by their convent. The account ' 
roll of the treasuress of St Radegund's Cambridge, in 1449-50, 
contains an item: 

And to Dame Alice Patryk lately dead in full payment of all debts 
35. ^d. from the legacy of Peter Erie, chaplain, lately deceased. And 
to Dame Joan Lancaster in part payment of 6i. M. bequeathed to 
her by the aforesaid Peter 3s. 4^., and to Dame Agnes Swafiham, 
subprioress, in part payment of 6s. M., 2od.^ 

But it was not only money which was bequeathed to nuns. 
They often received quite considerable legacies of jewels and 
plate, robes and furniture. What would we not give today to 
look for a moment at the beautiful things which Walter Skirlaw, 
Bishop of Durham, left to his sister Joan, the Prioress of Swine, 
in 1404? 

Item, one large gilded cup, with a cover and a round foot, and in the 
bottom a chaplet of white and red roses and a hind carven in the 
midst and aU round the outside carven with eagles, lions, crowns and 
other ingenious devices {babombus), and in the pommel a nest and 
three men standing and taking the chicks from the nest, of the weight 
of 18 marks. ...Item a robe of murrey cloth of Ypres {? yp'n) con- 
taining a mantle and hood furred with budge ('>purg'), another hood 
furred with ermine, a cloak furred with half vair, a long robe (garnach') 

furred with vair Item one bed of tapestry work of a white field, with 

a stag standing under a great tree and on either side lilies and a red 
border, with the complete tester and three curtains of white boulter ^. 

In the same year Anne St Quintin left the same noble lady "one 
silken quilt and one pair of sheets of cloth of Rennes"'. Eleven 
years earlier Sir John Fairfax, rector of Prescot, had left his 
sister Margaret Fairfax, Prioress of Nunmonkton (of whom we 
have already heard much that was not to her good) : 

one silver gilt cup with a cover, and one silver cup with a cover, one 
mazer with a cover of silver gilt, one pix of sdver for spices, six silver 

(chiefly wills of clergy and country gentry) ; Nicolas, Test. Vetusia, 1, pp. 52, 
70, 76, 79, 85, 115, 116, 120, 121, 123, 137, 155, 170, 196, 300, 377 (chiefly 
wills of the aristocracy); Gibbons, Early Lincoln Wills, pp. 18, 21, 25, 26, 
40, 41, 56, 60, 67, 71, 76, 80, 87, 97, 125, 138, 139, 150, 160 (chiefly wills of 
clergy and country gentry). The wills of the citizens of London preserved 
in the court of Husting contain many legacies to nuns, chiefly annual rents. 

' Gray, Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge, p. 156. 

2 Test. Ebor. i, pp. 317, 322, 324. The items occur in the inventory of the 
Bishop's goods and against each is written "Detur Priorissae de Swyna 
sorori meae." 

' lb. I, p. 332. 


spoons, one cloak of black cloth furred with gray, one round silver 
basin and ten marks of silver' 

Master John de Wodhouse in 1345 leaves Dame Alice Conyers, 
nun of Nunappleton, "fifteen marks [and] a long chest standing 
against my bed at York, one maser cup with an image of St 
Michael in the bottom and one cup of silver, which I had of her 
gift, with a hand in the bottom holding a falcon "2, and Isabella, 
widow of Thomas Corp, a London pepperer, in 1356, leaves 

to Margaret, sister of William Heyroun, vintner, nun at Barking, 
a silver plated cup with covercle, twelve silver spoons, two cups of 
mazer and a silver enamelled pix, together with three gold rings, with 
emerald, sapphire and diamond respectively and divers household 

Possibly some of these splendid pieces of plate found their 
way to the altar, and the cups and spoons to the frater of the 
house, but the nuns undoubtedly sometimes kept them for 
private use in their own camerae. Here also were kept the beds, 
such as that splendid one left by Bishop Skirlaw to his sister, 
the "bed of Norfolk" which Sir Robert de Roos left to his 
daughter Joan (1392)*, the "bed of worstede with sheets, which 
she kindly gave me," Ifeft by William Felawe, clerk, to Katherine 
Slo, Prioress of Shaftesbury (1411)-''. Doubtless Juhana de 

^ Test. Ebor. i, pp. 187-9. He also left the Prioress 13s. ^d. and each nun 
6s. 9>d. and each sister 3s. ^d. To certain nuns he left special bequests, to 
Margaret de Pykering, "one piece of silver, with the head of a stag in the 
bottom and 2s.," to Elizabeth Fairfax 26s. Std, and to Margaret de Cotam 
13s. 4^. ; also to the Prioress and convent "my white vestment with the gold 
stars and all the appurtenances thereof and my cross with Mary and John in 
silver and one gilt chahce." Nor were his legacies confined to Nunmonkton; 
he left his two sisters at Sempringham loos. and two nuns of Nunappleton 
and Marrick respectively, a cow each. 

' lb. I, pp. 14-15. He also leaves 40s. to the Prioress and convent "for 
a pittance," 20s. to another nun there and 6s. 8d. to a nun of Watton. He 
evidently had great confidence in AUce Conyers, for the injunctions of his 
will are to be carried out "according to the counsel and help of the said 
Ahce Conyers and of my executors." For other gifts of plate to individuals, 
see Test. Ebor. i, p. 216, Somerset Med. Wills, i, pp. 18, 144, Reg. Stafford of 
Exeter, pp. 392, 415, 416, TestamentaLeodiensia('ihoxes,hySoc.'PMh. 11, 1890), 
p. 108. 

' Sharpe, Cal. of Wills.. .in the Court of Husting, i, p. 688. She also 
leaves Margaret and two other nuns a. piece of blanket to be divided 
between them. 

'' Test. Ebor. i, p. 179. He also leaves her 40s. and a silver cup. 

* Somerset Medieval Wills, i, p. 47. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, 
left a bed among other things to her daughter, a nun of the house of 
Minoresses without Aldgate (1399). Nicolas, Test. Vetusta, r, p. 148. 


Irofton, nun of Hampole, knew what use to make of "six 
hillings and eightpence and a cloak lined with blue and two 
ablets and one saddle with a bridle and two leather bowls "i; 
ere at one gift was the wherewithal for writing a letter to 
nnounce a visit and for paying that visit on horseback, in 
ay and unconventual attire. Indeed the constant legacies of 
lothes to nuns go far to explain where it was that they obtained 
hose cheerful secular garments, against which their bishops 
^aged war in vain. In days when clothes were made of heavy 
nd Vcduable stuffs and richly adorned, it was a very common 
ustom for a woman to divide up her wardrobe between different 
Jgatees, and men also handed on their best garments. When 
1 1397 Margaret Fairfax is found using "divers furs and even 
ray fur {gris) " ^, one remembers, with a sudden flash of com- 
rehension, the "cloak of black cloth furred with gray" which 
er brother left her four years earlier. What did Elizabeth de 
fewemarche, nun, do with the mantle of brounemelly left her 
y Lady Isabel Fitzwilliam?^ What did Sir WiUiam Bonevyll's 
.ster at Wherwell do with "his best hoppelond with the fur"?* 
ITiat above all did the Prioress of Swine do with all those costly 
ir trimmings left her by the Bishop of Durham? Yorkshire 
unneries were apt to be undisciplined and worldly ; great ladies 
lere, if Archbishop Melton is to be beheved, sometimes con- 
dered that they might dress according to their rank^. We may 
ifely guess that the Prioress of Swine, like her contemporary 
t Nunmonkton, wore the furs; and visitation records do not 
lad us to suppose that other nuns sold their blue-lined cloaks 
nd houppelonds for the sake of their convents, or bestowed 
lem on the poor. 

It is a common injunction that nuns are to wear no other 
ng than that which, at their consecration, made them brides 

• Test. Ebor. i, p. 382. 

" Dugdale, Mon. iv, p. 194. ' Test. Ebor. i, p. 51, 

* Reg. Stafford of Exeter, p. 392. For other gifts of clothes see Rye, 
irrow Abbey, app. p. xix (a habit cloth), Lincobr Wills, ed. Foster, p. 84 
a fyne mantyll of ix yerds off narow cloth "), Test. Ebor. i, p. 59 (my two 
bes with mantles), ib. u, p. 255 (my best harnassed belt). 

° At Hampole in 1320 he warned the prioress to correct those nuns who 
ed new-fangled clothes, contrary to the accustomed use of the order, 
vhatever might be their condition or state of dignity," V.C.H. Yorks. 
, p. 164 (where the date is wrongly given as 13 14). 


of Christ!; but the rule was often disobeyed and Dame Clemence 
Medforde's " golden rings exceeding costly with divers precious 
stones^" are explained when we remember the " three gold rings, 
one having a sapphire, another an emerald and the third a 
diamond" which the rich pepperer's widow left to Dame 
Margaret Heyroun^. Madame Eglentyne herself may have owed 
to one of the many friends, who held her digne of reverence, her 
"peire of bedes, gauded al with grene," of small coral. When 
Sir Thomas Cumberworth died in 145 1 he ordered that "the 
prioris of Coton, of Irford, of Legburn and of Grenefeld have 
Ilkon of yam a pare bedys of corall, as far as that I have may 
laste, and after yiff yam gette [give them jet] bedes"*, and so 
also Matilda Latymer left her daughter at Buckland a set of 
"Bedys de corall "^ and Margerie de CrioU left a nun of Shaftes- 
bury "my paternoster of coral and white pearls, which the 
Countess of Pembroke gave me"'. 

(5) The fifth and last source from which nuns could derive 
a private income was by the work of their own hands and 
brains. It has been stated above that very little is known about 
the sale of fine needlework by nuns, but a very interesting case 
at Easebourne seems to show that they sometimes considered 
themselves entitled to retain for their own private use the sums 
which they earned. In 1441 one of the complaints against the 
^gay prioress" was that she "compels her sisters to work con- 
tinually like hired workwomen, and they receive nothing 
whatever for their own use from their work, but the prioress 

^ See e.g. Wilkins, Cone, i, p. 591; V.C.H. Bucks, i, p. 383; Line. Visit. 
I, p. 52; »6. 11, pp. 3. 8. 

' See above, p. 76. 

' See above, p. 328. For other bequests of rings, see the wills of Sir Guy 
de Beauchamp, 1359 (his fourth best gold ring to his daughter Katherine 
at Shouldham), Robert de Ufford, Earl of Suffolk, 1368 ("to the Lady of 
Ulster, a Minoress...a ring of gold, which was the duke's, her brother's"), 
Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, 1 369 (rings to his daughter and grand- 
daughter at Shouldham). Nicolas, Test. Vetusta, i, pp. 63, 74, 79. But rings 
might be put to pious uses. The inventory of joealia in the custody of the 
sacrist of Wherwell (c. 1333-40) contains the item, "a small silver croun, 
with eleven gold rings fixed in it, for the high altar; another better croun 
of silver, with nineteen gold rings," V.C.H. Hants. 11, p. 135. 

' Line. Dioc. Doe. ed. A. Clark (E.E.T.S), p. 50. 

' Reg. Stafford of Exeter, p. 415. 

' Gibbons, Early Line. Wills, p. 5, In the Prioress' room at Sheppey 
at the Dissolution were found "iiij payre of corall beds, contaynyng in all 
Iviij past gawdy (ed.)." Walcott, Invent. of...Shepey, p 29. 


takes the whole profit." The bishop's injunction is extremely 
significant : 

the prioress shall by no means compel her sisters to continual work 
of their hands and if they should wish of their own accord to work, 
they shall be free to do so, but yet so that they may reserve for them- 
selves the half part of what they gain by their hands; the other part 
shall be converted to the advantage of the house and unburdening 
it from debfi. 

In fine, the Bishop is obliged to acquiesce in a serious breach 
of the Benedictine rule: the plea of the nuns to commit the sin 
of proprietas is considered as a reasonable demand; and the 
compromise that half their earnings should go to the common 
fund is intended rather to check the prioress than the nuns. 
From the injunctions of other bishops it would appear that the 
private boarders and private pupils taken by individual nuns 
sometimes paid their fees to those individuals and not to the 
house^; the "household" system made the reception of such 
boarders easy. 

From whatever source nuns obtained control of money and 
goods, whether from the peculium, from gifts, from legacies, or 
from the proceeds of their own labour, one thing is clear: in a 
fourteenth or fifteenth century house, where the system of the 
peculium and the familia obtained, there was a considerable.;; 
approximation to private life and to private property. The 
control of money and goods and the division into households, 
catering separately for themselves, worked in together. The 
responsibility of the convent towards its members was some- 
times limited to a bare minimum of food, such as the staple 
bread and beer, and perhaps a small dress allowance. All the 
rest was provided by the nuns themselves. In strict theory 
annuities, gifts and legacies, were put into common stock and 
administered by the convent. In practice they were obviously 
retained in individual possession and administered as private 
property by the nuns. Even legacies of lump sums to a whole 
convent were probably divided up between the nuns, an equal 
sum being paid to each and perhaps double to the prioress. 

An analysis of the conditions revealed at Alnwick's visita- 
tion of the Lincoln diocese in 1440-5 throws an exceedingly 

1 Sussex Arch. Coll. ix, p, 8. * See pp. 272-3. 


interesting side-light, not only on the vow of monastic poverty, a 
understood in the fifteenth century, but also on the domesti 
economy of the houses, the majority of which were small am 
poor. It may also conveniently be compared with the evidenc 
given by the same visitations as to the system of familiae ii 
these houses. At some the house supplied all food and clothe 
or a peculium for clothes, at some it provided only a bare mini 
mum of food, at some neither dress nor dress allowance wa 
provided. At Legbourne 

every nun has one loaf, one half gallon of beer a day, one pig a yeai 
i8i. for beef, every day in Advent and Lent two herrings, and a littl 
butter in summer and sometimes two stone of cheese a year and 8a 
a year for raiment and no more; 

the sum of 2s. 2d. a year for beef and clothes was certainl; 
not excessive!. At Stixwould 

every nun receives in the year one pig, one sheep, a quarter of beel 
two stones of butter, three stones of cheese, every day in Advent am 
Lent three herrings, six salt fish and twelve doughcakes a year; am 
they were wont to have 6s. Sd. for their raiment, but for several year 
back (one nun said for twenty years) as regards raiment they hav 
received nothing. 

At St Michael's Stamford, the house provided only "bread an( 
beer and a mark for fish and flesh and other things and as t' 
their raiment they receive naught of the house"; out of th 
mark the nuns catered for themselves. Other houses provida 
still less out of the common funds : at Gokewell the nuns receivei 
nothing from the house but bread and beer and at Markyat 
(a poor house, of not unblemished reputation and badly in debl 
" they receive of the house only bread, beer and two marks fo 
their raiment and what else is necessary for their living, whic 
are less than enough for their sundry needful wants"; Alnwic 
ordered all victuals to be given them "of the commune store 
of the house owte of one selare and one kytchyne" and fixe 
the dress allowance at a noble yearly, but he did not say ho' 
the house was to raise funds. At Nuncoton the allowance we 

^ Another nun says that she has nothing at all for raiment and anoth 
deposes, "seeing that the revenues of the house are not above forty poun( 
and the nuns are thirteen in number with one novice, so many out of ren 
so slender cannot have sufficient food and clothing, unless some help 1 
given them from other sources by their secular friends." Line. Visit, i 
pp. 184, 186. 


. a year, but when Alnwick came the nuns had received only 
. each. At Fosse, Langley and Ankerwyke the houses provided 
eat and drink, but no dress or dress allowance ; and at Catesby 
was complained that "the prioress does not give the nuns 
tisfaction in the matter of their raiment and money for victuals 
id touching the premises the prioress is in the nuns' debt for 
iree-quarters of the year"i. From these references it is plain 
lat the nuns usually bought their own clothes and often catered 
ir themselves in flesh food; also that the poverty of many 
3uses was so great that the nuns could not have lived decently 
ithout the help of friends, whether because their dress al- 
iwances were always in arrears, or because the house recognised 
a responsibility to clothe them from its exiguous funds. Yet 
; regards food at least, the habit of catering separately for 
;parate messes was undoubtedly less economical than the 
;gular maintenance of a common table would have been. 

A highly interesting light on the control of money allowances 
)r the purchase of food by the individual nuns of a convent 
i thrown by convent account rolls. These accounts show two 
ifferent methods of catering in force. In one all the house- 
eeping was done by the cellaress, who bought such stores as 
'ere needed to supplement the produce of the home farm and 
rovided the nuns with the whole of their food. This is the 
ormal method, which accords with the Rule ; it is to be found 
1 the Syon cellaresses' rolls and in the roU of Elizabeth Swynf ord, 
'rioress of Catesby (1414-15). The latter sets forth: (i) the 
roduce of the home farm, how many animals were delivered 

the larder, how many to the kitchen, how much grain was 
lalted, etc.; (2) the payments for food bought to supplement 
his home produce: 

1 flesh and eggs bought from the feast of St Michael until Lent 
3/0J, and in expenses of the house from Easter unto the feast of 
it Michael in beef and eggs bought, £■]. i. 9., 2 barrels 4 kemps 
f oil and salt fish bought in time of Lent l^. o. 6, 

lesides sundry odd purchases of red herrings, pepper, saffron, 

alt, garlic and fat^ 

1 For these references, see LtKC. Visit. 11, pp. 7, 47, 92, 117, 184, 186; 
yinwick's Visit. MS. ff. 6, yid, 76, 83. Also injunctions as to food at Elstow 
b. II, p. 39 (and note). 

2 Baker, Hist, and Aniiq. of Northanis. i, pp. 280, 282-3. 


But some account rolls show an entirely different method 
of housekeeping. By this the convent provided the nuns with 
their daily ration of bread and beer and perhaps with a certain 
amount of green food and dairy produce, but paid them an 
allowance of money with which to buy their meat and fish 
food for themselves. On this system the convent still had to 
provide the nuns with their pittances, though often enough 
these too were paid in money, and usually also with the bulk of 
their Lenten fare of salt fish and spices, which was bought in 
large quantities at a time and stored. An extreme example of 
this system is found in the account of Christian Bassett, Prioress 
of St Mary de Pre (St Albans) in 1486-8. Under the heading 
Comyns, Pytances and Partycions she pays to herself as 
prioress : 

for her comyns for xxj monethes...vj 1. viij s iiij d....Item paid to 
dame Alice Wafyr for her comyns for xxj nionethes...vj 1. viij s iiij d. 
...Item paid to vij susters of the same place for their comons for 
xxj monethis...xxj li. vj s viij d. Item paid to dame Johan KnoUys 
for her comyns for v monethis xvj s viij d....Item paid for brede and 
ale and fewell departyd amongs the susters by a yere and a half lij s. 
Item paid for ij bushell of pesyn departyd amongs the susters in 
Lente xvj d. 

The rest of the section contains notices of special pittances, paid 
sometimes in money and sometimes in kind ; for instance los. 6i. 
is paid for "Maundy Ale" and lod. for wine on two Maundy 
Thursdays, but the sisters also get " Maundy money" amounting 
to 2irf. One interesting item runs: "delyvered of the rente in 
Cambrigge amongs the susters for the tyme of this accompte 
xlviijs"; these rents, which are entered among the receipts, 
were no doubt ear-marked for the nuns, possibly as peculia for 
the purchase of clothes, possibly as a pittance^. The same system 
of housekeeping was obviously also in vogue at St Michael's, 
Stamford, at the time of Alnwick's visitation; but the account 
rolls of this house are not easy to interpret, because although 
they contain no reference to catering, other than certain pittances 
and feasts on Maundy Thursday and other festal occasions, 
neither do they contain any reference to commons money. No 
separate cellaress' accounts have survived to throw any further 

1 Dugdale, Mon. in, p. 359. 


light upon the subject. At Elstow Abbey some years later the 
practice of paying "commons" money was well established^. 

It is tempting to conjecture what considerations may have 
prevailed to make some houses substitute money grants for the 
provision of food in kind. The tendency certainly grew with 
the custom of forming familiae which messed separately and it 
certainly increased with time. Even at Catesby, which we saw 
to be a typical example of communal housekeeping in 1414-5, 
it seems to have become customary to give money for some at 
least of the victuals in 1442. The tendency also grew with 1 
poverty, as appears from Alnwick's visitations, though it is not'-' 
clear whence the nuns obtained the wherewithal to feed them- 
selves adequately, unless they had the use of extra funds of 
their own. It may also be conjectured that the system would 
be easier to work in a town than in the depths of the country. 
In a town the nuns could buy in the open market, and it was as 
easy for individuals to buy in small quantities as for the cellaress 
to buy wholesale. In the country, however, the convent would 
not only be more dependent on the home farm, but such pur- 
chases as had to be made at occasional fairs and weekly markets 
could more easily be made in bulk, a consideration which also 
accounts for the fact that the barrels and cades of salt fish for 
Lent were usually laid in wholesale by the cellaress. Moreover 
it would often be convenient for a town house to lease out the 
greater number of its demesnes and to depend upon what it 
could purchase for its daily fare. St Mary de Pre is particularly 
interesting in this respect; the 1486-8 account shows no sign 
of any home farm; the income of the house is derived almost 
entirely from " rents of assise and rents farm " within the town of 
St Albans and in other places and from tithes, and the pro- 
portion of farms or leases is noticeably large. Even the bread 
and beer distributed among the sisters did not come from a 
home farm; it was bought with 52s. received from the Abbot 
of St Albans for that purpose ; the kitchener of the parent abbey 

1 Temp. Henry VII the Abbess of Elstow's account records the pay- 
ment of double commons of is. a week to the Prioress and (>d, a week single 
commons to each of the nuns. Pittances (double to the prioress) are paid on 
days of profession and on the greater feast. The nuns also had dress allow- 
ances in money. C. T. Flower, Obedientiars' Accounts of Glastonbury and 
other Relig. Houses (St Paul's Ecclesiol. Soc. vii, pt 11, 1912), pp. 52, 55. 


similarly provided the nuns with 12s., "for potage money de- 
partyd amongs the susters for a yere," and at the forester's 
office they received 8s. for their fuel. 

Occasional references show what a variety of household 
charges the nuns sometimes had to bear out of their pecidia, and 
the other sources of their private income. At Campsey in 1532, 
for instance, 

the subprioress says that the prioress will not allow her servants to 
go out upon the necessary errands of the nuns, but they hire outsiders 
at their own cost and Dame Isabella Norvviche says that sick nuns in 
the time of their sickness bear the cost of what is needful to them and 
it is not provided at the charge of the house^. 

At Sheppey also, in 151 1, there was no infirmary and when ill 
the nuns had to hire women for themselves and pay for them 
,out of their own money^. At Langley in 1440 Alnwick ordered 
that each nun should have yearly a cartload of fuel, cut at the 
cost of the house, but carried at the cost of the nuns^. At 
Wherwell there was a custom by which, on the first occasion 
that a nun took her turn in reading from the pulpit, a certain 
sum of money or a pittance was exacted from her for the benefit 
of the convent, a custom forbidden by Bishop John of Pontoise 
in 1302^; and there is mention of another pittance in 1311, when 
Bishop Woodlock ordered that for digging the grave and pre- 
paring the coffin of a nun who had died and for pittances to 
the sisters on the day of her burial, the goods of the deceased 
nun should not be expended, because she ought not to have 
private property, but the common goods of the church were 
to be spent; which seems like locking the stable door after the 
horse has gone^. 

It is interesting to trace the attitude of ecclesiastic authorities 
to these various manifestations of proprietas. The bishops found 
some difficulty in persuading nuns, accustomed to expend money 
for themselves and to dine in familiae in separate rooms, ac- 
customed also to receive gifts and legacies in money and kind, 
that they must hold all things in common. At Arthington, in 
1307, two nuns, Agnes de Screvyn (who had resigned the post 

^ Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich, ed. Jessopp, p. 290. 

^ Eng. Hist. Rev. VI, p. 34. ' Line. Visit, u, pp. 176, 177. 

' Reg.' J. de Pontissara, 1, p. 125. 

^ Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, p. 103. 


of Prioress in 1303) and Isabella Couvel, asserted that certain 
animals and goods belonging to the priory were their private 
property and Archbishop Greenfield bids the Prioress admonish 
them to resign these within three days "to lawful and honest 
uses," according to her judgment^. Similarly Bishop Bokyngham 
writes to Heynings in 1392 : 

We order that cows, sows, capons, hens and all animals of any kind 
soever, together with wild or tame birds, which are held by certain 
of the nuns (whether with or without hcence)... shall be delivered up 
to the common use of the convent within three days, without the 
alienation or subtraction of any of them^. 

In the light of these passages it is interesting to find that cows 
and pigs are among the legacies sometimes left to nuns^. At 
Nuncoton, in 1440, where certain nuns were in the habit of 
wandering in their gardens and gathering herbs instead of at- 
tending Compline, 

Dame Alice Aunselle prays that they may all Uve in common and 
that no nun may have anything, such as cups and the like, as her own; 
but that if any such there be, they be kept in common by their 
common servant and that they may not have houses or separate 
gardens appointed, as it were, to them^, 

which illustrates how Ccisily the household system slid into 
proprietas. It was sometimes even necessary to forbid nuns to 
make wills and bequeath their property. This was forbidden by 
the Council of Oxford in 1222 ' and in 1387 WiUiam of Wykeham 
sent a stem injunction to the nuns of Romsey, pointing out that 
by making wills they were falling into the sin of property*. 

» V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 164. 

^ Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Bokyngham, i. 397^. Compare Eudes Rigaud's 
difficulties with the hens at Saint- Aubin, below, p. 653. 

' E.g. in the will of Agnes de Denton, 1356 (Item to dame Cecilie de 
Hmjrthwayt two cows), Testamenta Karleolensia, p. 12; Sir John Fairfax, 
1393 (Item I bequeath to dame Katherine de Barlay, nun of Appleton, one 
cow. Item to dame Custance Colvyll, nun of Marrick, one cow) ; Sir William 
Dronsfeld, 1406 (Item I bequeath to dame Alice de Totehill, nun, one cow. 
Item I bequeath to dame Margaret de Bameby, one cow) ; Sir Thomas 
Rednes 1407 (Item to Alice Redness nun [of Hampole] one cow and one 
fat pig). Test. Ebor. i, pp. 189, 345, 349. 

^ Alnwick's Visit. MS. f. 72. 

' Wilkins, Cone, i, p. 593. 

« New Coll. MS. ff. 851^, 86. The sin of proprietas seems to have been 
serious in this house, for the Bishop couples his prohibition of wills with a 
prohibition of private rooms and pupils, and later (f . 86d) makes a general 
injunction against private property. 


In 1394, on the death of Joan Furmage, Abbess of Shaftes- 

the bishop ordered the Abbey to be sequestrated and annulled the 
will by which she had alienated the goods of the house in bequests 
to friends, declaring such a disposition to be injurious to the com- 
munity and contrary to the usage of rehgious women^. 

The history of the attitude of ecclesiastical authorities to 
two sources of private income, the peculium and the gifts from 
friends to individuals, is of even greater significance than these 
attempts to cope with private goods, for it shows how powerless 
the bishops were against the steady weakening of discipUne in 
monastic houses. Here, as in the enclosure struggle and the 
struggle against familiae, they were forced into compromise at 
best and at worst into acquiescence. At its first appearance 
the custom of giving a peculium to individuals was severely con- 
demned as a manifest breach of the rule : 

"Moneys shall not be assigned to each separately for clothes," says 
the Council of Oxford in 1222, "But such shall be diligently attended 
to by certain persons deputed to this purpose, chamberers or cham- 
bresses, who according to the need of each and the resources of the 
house, shall minister garments to them,... Also it shall not be lawful 
for the chamberer or chambress to give to any monk, canon or nun, 
monies or anything else for clothes, nor shall it be lawful for monk, 
canon or nun to receive anything; otherwise let the chamberer be 
deposed from office and the monk, canon or nun go without new 
clothes for that year "2. 

Similarly, in the Constitutions of the legate Ottobon in 1268, 
the peculium is grouped with other forms of property; ch. XL 
enacts that no religious is to possess property and that the head 
of the house is to make diligent search for such property twice 
a year^, and ch. xli enacts that no money is to be given to a 
religious for clothes, shoes and other necessities, but he is to be 

' V.C.H. Dorset, 11, p. 78. ' Wilkins, Cone, i, p. 592. 

' In connection with this, see Wickwane's injunction to Nunappleton 
in 1281, "We also forbid locked boxes and chests, save if the prioress shall 
have ordained some seemly arrangement of the kind and shall often see 
and inspect the contents." Reg.Wickwane (SurteesSoc.),p. 141. AlsoNewark's 
injunction to Swine in 1298 that the Prioress and two senior nuns should 
cause the boxes of any nuns of whom suspicion [of property] should arise 
to be opened in her presence and the contents seen. And if anyone will not 
open her box... then let the prioress break it open." Reg. of John le Romayn 
and Hen. of Newark (Surtees Soc), 11, p. 223; compare Eudes Rigaud's 
struggle against locked boxes, below, p. 652. 


given the article itself i. In 1438 a severe injunction from Bishop 
Spofford of Hereford to the nuns of Aconbury shows the close 
connection between the peculium and the private camera of the 
nuns^. Yet in 1380 we find a bishop of Sahsbury assigning a 
weekly allowance of 2d. to each nun of Shaftesbury from the 
issues of the house^ ; and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries 
nuns regularly complain to their visitors when their allowances 
are in arrears and the bishops regularly ordain that the money 
is to be paid*. In the thirteenth century it is a fault in the ;' 
Prioress to give the nuns a peculium; in the fifteenth century / 
it is a fault to withhold it. (' 

The custom as to presents from friends was that the nuns 
might receive gifts, only by the permission of their superior,! 
to whom everything must be shown ^. Thus Archbishop Wick-- 
wane writes to Nunappleton in 1281: "that no nun shall appro- 
priate to herself any gift, garment or shoes of the gift of anyone, 
without the consent and assignment of the prioress "8; Arch- 
bishop Greenfield in 1315 forbids the nuns of Rosedale to accept 
or give any presents without the consent of the Prioress'; and 
Archbishop Bowet in 141 1 enacts that any nun of Hampole 
receiving gifts or legacies from friends is at once on returning 
to reveal them to the Prioress*. Occasionally a Prioress, whether 
out of zeal for the Rule or for some other reason, showed herself 
unwilling to allow the nuns to receive presents. The nuns of 

' Wilkins, Cone. 11, p. 16. 

^ "Where the lawe and the professyon of yche religyouse person that 
thei have shuld have one fraitoure and house to ete in in commyn and not 
in private chaumbers, and so to lygg and slepe in one house, in youre said 
covent sustren reteynen money and proveis thame selfe privatly ayensthe 
ordir of religion, etc." The injunction is coupled with a strong injunction 
against dowries. Hereford Reg. T. Spofford, p. 224. Compare the injunction 
to Lymbrook, p. 324 above. 

' V.C.H. Dorset, 11, p. 77. 

■* For other references to the peculium for clothing, see Visit, of Dice, 
of Norwich, ed. Jessopp, p. 274; Sussex Arch. Coll. ix, p. 23; Liveing, Records 
of Romsey Abbey, p. 130. 

' Thus WilUam of Wykeham, in the course of his severe inj unction against 
proprieias at Romsey (1387), thus defines it: " Vt autem quid sit proprium 
vobis plenius innotescat, nos sancti Benedict! regulam imitantes, id totum 
proprium sine proprietatem fore dicimus et eciam declaramus, quicquid 
videlicet dederitis vel receperitis sine iussu vestre Abbatisse aut retinueritis 
sine permissione iUius." New Coll. MS. f. S6d. 

' Reg. Wickwane (Surtees Soc), p. 140. 

' V.C.H. Yorks. Ill, p. 174. ' lb. in, p. 164. 


Flixton in 1514 complained: "that they receive no annual 
pensions and that the prioress is angry when anything is given 
to them by their friends "i and Alnwick in 1441 wrote to the 
Prioress of Ankerwyke, whose nuns complained both of in- 
sufficient clothes and of her bad temper when their friends came 
to see them. 

And what euer thise saide frendes wyll gyfe your sustres in relefe 
of thaym as in hire habyte and sustenaunce, ye suffre your sustres 
to take hit, so that no abuse of euel come therbye noyther to the 
place ne to the persones therof^. 

It was indeed almost a necessity to encourage the reception of 
presents, when (as so often happened towards the close of the 
middle ages) nuns were dependent for clothes upon their friends. 
But with Bishop Praty ordering that the nuns of Easebourne 
shall receive half the sums paid them for their work, and with 
Bishop Alnwick encouraging presents and enforcing the pay- 
ment of peculia, it is plain that the Lady Poverty had fallen 
upon evil days. 

' Jessopp, Visit, of Dioc. of Norwich, p. 143. 
' Line. Visit, u, p. 8. 



De sorte qu'une Religieuse hors de sa cloture est comma une pierre 
hors de son centre; comme un arbre hors de terre; comma Adam et 
Eve hors du Paradis terrestre; comme la corbaau hors da I'arche qui 
ne s'arreste qu'a des charognes; comme un poisson hors de I'eau, 
selon le grand Saint Antoine et Saint Bernard; comme una brebis 
hors de sa bergerie et en danger d'estre devor^e des loups, salon Saint 
Theodore Studite; comme un oiseau hors de son nid et une grenouille 
hors de son marais, selon le meme Saint Bernard; comme un mort 
hors da son tombaau, qui infecte las personnas qui s'en approchant, 
selon Pierra la Venerable at la Rdgle attribute k Saint Jerome; et 
par consequent dans un etat tout a fait opposd a la vie R6guli6re 
qu'ella a embrassea. 

J. B. Thiers {i68i). 

The famous chapter Lxvi of the Benedictine Rule enunciated 
the principle that the professed monk should remain within the 
precincts of his cloister and eschew all wandering in the world^^; 
It is clear, however, that the Rule allowed a certain latitude and 
that monks and nuns were to be allowed to leave their houses 
under certain conditions and for necessary causes. Brethren 
working at a distance or going on a journey may be excused 
attendance at the divine office, if they cannot reach the church 
in time^- Brethren sent upon an errand are forbidden to accept 
invitations to eat outside the house without the consent of their 
superior^. Moreover longer journeys are plainly contemplated, 
in which they might have to spend a night or more outside their 
monastery*. But no one might ever leave the cloister bounds 

1 ' ' The monastery, however, itself ought if possible to be so constructed 
as to contain within it all necessaries, that is, water, mill, garden and [places , 

for] the various crafts which are exercised within a monastery, so that there J^ 
be no occasion for monks to wander abroad, since this is in no wise expedient 
for their souls." Rule of St Benedict, tr. Gasquet, pp. 117-8. _J 

" Chap. L, ib. p. 88. ' Chap, li, ib. p. 89. 

* Chap. Lxvii, ib. p. 118, This, however, is clearly exceptional; the 
regulation comes in a later chapter and not in the first edition of the rule. 
The translations of the rule made at a later date for nuns, sometimes specify 
visits "to fadir or moder or ojier trend" not mentioned in the original. 


without the permission of the superior; and it was the obvious 
intention of St Benedict to reduce to a minimum all wandering 
in the world. Strictly speaking this system of enclosure applied 
equally to monks and to nuns; but from the earliest times it 
was considered to be a more vital necessity for the well being of 
the latter; and the history of the enclosure movement is in effect 
the history of an effort to add a fourth vow of claustration to 
the three cardinal vows of the nun^. The reasons for this severity 
are sufficiently obvious, and show that curious contradiction 
of ideas which is so common in all general theories about women. 
On the one hand the immense importance attached by the 
medieval Church to the state of virginity, exemplified in St John 
Chrysostom's remarks that Christian virgins are as far above the 
rest of mankind as are the angels, made it all important that 
this priceless jewel should not be exposed to danger in a wicked 
world ^. On the other hand the medieval contempt for the 
fragility of women led to a cynical conviction that only when 
they were shut up behind the high walls of the cloister was it 
possible to guarantee their virtue; aut virum ant muruni oportet 
mulierem habere^- Both views received support from the deep- 

' In some reformed orders founded at a later date the formula of pro- 
fession actually contained a vow of perpetual enclosure, e.g. the Poor Clares, 
whose vow, under the second rule given to them by Urban IV in 1263, com- 
prised obedience, poverty, chastity and enclosure. Thiers, De la Cloture 
(1681), pp. 41-2. Compare the formula given in'the rule of the Order of the 
Annunciation, founded at the close of the fifteenth century by Jeanne de 
France, daughter of Louis XI. lb. p. 55. The nuns of the older orders did 
not make any specific vow of enclosure, and it was enforced upon them only 
as an indispensable condition for the fulfilment of their other vows, which 
accounts for the obstinacy of their opposition; some jurisconsults, indeed, 
were of the opinion that the Pope could not oblige a nun to be enclosed 
against her will. lb. p. 50. 

2 The passage is quoted in the preface to Thiers, op. cit. For the Church's 
view of virginity, see especially St Jerome's famous Epistola (22) ad 

' Thiers, op. cit. p. 245. Quoting the jurisconsult Philippus Probus. For 
a good example of the mixture of ideas, see Mr Coulton's account of the 
arguments used by the monk Idung of St Emmeram in favour of enclosure: 
" He begins with the usual medieval emphasis on feminine frailty, of which 
(as he points out) the Church reminds us in her collect for every Virgin 
Martyr's feast 'Victory... even in the weaker sex.' Then comes the usual 
quotation from St Jerome, with its reference to Dinah, which Idung is 
bold enough to clinch by a detailed allusion to Danae. This, of course, is 
little more than the usual clerkly ungallantry ; but it is followed by a passage 
of more cruel courtesy. The monk must needs go abroad sometimes on 
business, as for instance, to buy and sell in markets; 'but such occupations 


rooted idea as old as the Greeks and an unconscionable time in 
dying, that "a free woman should be bounded by the street 
door"i. Medieval moralists were generally agreed that inter- 
course with the world was at the root of all those evils which 
dimmed the fair fame of the conventual system, by affording 
a constant temptation to frivolity and to grosser misconduct. 
Moreover the tongue of scandal was always busy and the nun's 
reputation was safe only if she could be placed beyond reproach. 
Hence those regulations which Mr Coulton compares to "the 
minutely ingenious and degrading precautions of an oriental 
harem " ^. 

Based upon such considerations as these, the movement for 
the enclosure of nuns began very early in their history and con- 
tinued with unabated vigour long after the Reformation^. Some 
years before the compilation of the Benedictine Rule St Caesarius 
of Aries, in his Rule for nuns, had forbidden them ever to leave 
their monastery; and from the sixth to the eleventh century 
decrees were passed from time to time by various provincial 
councils, advocating a stricter enclosure of monks and nuns, but 
especially of the latter. Already by the twelfth century mon- 
asticism had declined from its first fervour, and it is significant 
that the reformed orders which sprang up during the great 
renaissance of that century all made a special effort to enforce 
enclosure upon their nuns. The nuns of Premontre and Fonte- 
vrault were strictly enclosed and in the middle of the following 

as these would be most indecent for even an earthly queen, and far below 
the dignity of a bride of the King of Heaven.'" Coulton, Med. Studies, 
No. 10, "Monastic Schools in Middle Ages " (19 13), pp. 21-2. 

^ Words which Menander puts in the mouth of one of his characters. 
Compare the famous Periclean definition of womanly virtue, which is "not 
to be talked about for good or for evil among men." 

" Coulton, Chaucer and his England, p. iii. 

' The following references will be found conveniently collected in Part I 
chs. 1-16 of a very interesting httle book, the Traiti de la ClGture des Beli- 
gieuses, published in Paris in 1681 by Jean-Baptiste Thiers, " Prestre, 
BacheUer en Theologie de la Faculte de Paris et Cur6 de Chambrond." The 
treatise is divided into two parts, one of which shows "that it is not per- 
mitted to nuns to leave their enclosure without necessity," the other "that 
it is not permitted to strangers to enter the enclosure of nuns without 
necessity." The author contends that enclosure was the immemorial 
practice of the Church, though the first general decree on the subject was 
the Bull Periculoso ; but what he proves is really that the demand grew up 
gradually and naturally out of the effort to reform the growing abuses in 
conventual life, which sprang from too free an intercourse with the world. 


century the statutes promulgated by the Chapter-General of the 
Cistercian Order (1256-7) contain a clause ordering nuns to 
remain in their convents, except under certain specified con- 
ditions, while the rule given by Urban IV to the Franciscan 
nuns (1263) went further than any previous enactments in 
binding them by a vow of perpetual enclosure, against which 
no plea of necessity might avail. Various synods and councils 
continued to repeat the order that nuns were not to leave their 
houses, except for a reasonable cause, but it is plain from the 
evidence of ecclesiastics, moralists and episcopal visitations that 
the nuns all over Europe paid small heed to their words. 
Finally, at the beginning of the new century, came the first 
general regulation on the subject which was binding as a law 
upon the whole church, the famous Bull Periculoso, promulgated 
by Boniface VIII about the year 1299. 

This decree, often afterwards confirmed by Popes and 
Councils, remained the standard regulation upon the subject 
and in view of its cardinal importance its terms are worthy of 
notice : 

Desiring to provide for the perilous and detestable state of certain 
nuns, who, having slackened the reins of decency and having shame- 
lessly cast aside the modesty of their order and of their sex, sometimes 
gad about outside their monasteries in the dwellings of secular persons, 
and frequently admit suspected persons within the same monasteries, 
to the grave offence of Him to Whom they have, of their own will, 
vowed their innocence, to the opprobrium of rehgion and to the 
scandal of very many persons ; we by the present constitution, which 
shall be irrefragably vahd, decree with healthful intent that all and 
sundry nuns, present and future, to whatever order they belong and 
in whatever part of the world, shall henceforth remain perpetually 
■i enclosed within their monasteries ; so that no nun tacitly or expressly 
professed in religion shall henceforth have or be able to have the 
power of going out of those monasteries for whatsoever reason or 
cause, unless perchance any be found manifestly suffering from a 
disease so great and of such a nature that she cannot, without grave 
danger or scandal, live together with others; and to no dishonest or 
even honest person shall entry or access be given by them, unless for 
a reasonable and manifest cause and by a special licence from the 
person to whom [the granting of such a hcence] pertains; that so, 
altogether withdrawn from public and mundane sights, they may 
serve God more freely and, all opportunity for wantonness being re- 
moved, they may more diligently preserve for Him in all holiness 
their souls and their bodies. 


The Bull further, in order to avoid any excuse for wandering 
abroad in search of alms, forbids the reception into any non- 
mendicant order of more sisters than can be supported without 
penury by the goods of the house; and, in order to prevent 
nuns being forced to attend lawcourts in person, requires all 
secular and ecclesiastical authorities to allow them to plead 
by proctors in their courts; but if an Abbess or Prioress has to 
do personal homage to a secular lord for any fief and it cannot 
be done by a proctor, she may leave her house with honest and 
fit companions and do the homage, returning home immediately. 
Finally Ordinaries are enjoined to take order as soon as may be 
for proper enclosure where there is none to provide that it is 
strictly kept according to the terms of the decree, and to see 
that all is completed by Ash Wednesday, notifying any reasonable 
impediment within eight days of Candlemas"^. 

For the next three centuries Councils and Bishops struggled 
manfully to put into force the Bull Periculoso, but without 
success; the constant repetition of the order that nuns should 
not leave their convents is the measure of its failure. In the 
various reformed orders, which were founded in the fifteenth and 
sixteenth centuries, the insistence upon enclosure bears witness 
to the importance which was attached to it as a vital condition 
of reform: Boniface IX's ordinances for the Dominicans (1402), 
St Francis of Paula's rule for his order in Calabria (1435), the 
rule of the Order of the Annunciation, founded by Jeanne, 
daughter of Louis XI, at the close of the fifteenth century, 
Johann Busch's reforms in Saxony, the reformed rules given 
by fitienne Poncher, Bishop of Paris, to the nuns of Chelles, 
Montmartre and Malnoue (1506) and by Geoffrey de Saint Belin, 
Bishop of Poitiers, to the nuns of the Holy Cross, Poitiers (1511), 
all insist upon strict enclosure 2. Similarly a long list might be 
drawn up of general and provincial councils and synods which 
repeated the ordinance, culminating in the great general Council 
of Trent, which renewed the decree Periculoso and was itself 

' Sext. Decret. lib. Iii, tit. xvi. Quoted in Reg. Siinonis de Gandavo, 
pp. 10 ff. ; from which I quote. See also Thiers, op. cit. pp. 45-9- 

2 See Thiers, op. cit. pp. 53-60 for these, except the reforms of Busch, 
for which see below, App. m. Three papal bulls were published in the 
sixteenth century reinforcing Periculoso, viz. the Bull Circa pastoralis (1566) 
and Decori et honestaii (1570) of Pius V and the Bull Deo sacris of Gregory 
XIII (1572). 


followed by another long series of provincial councils, which 
endeavoured to put its decree into force. But these efforts were 
still attended by very imperfect success, for the worldly nuns 
of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries chafed at the irksome 
restriction no less than did their predecessors of the middle ages. 
When, in 1681, Jean-Baptiste Thiers pubhshed his treatise on 
the enclosure of nuns he announced his reason to be that no 
point of ecclesiastical discipline was in his day more completely 
neglected and ignored^. 

This brief sketch of the enclosure movement in the Western 
Church is necessary to a right understanding of the special 
attempts which were made in England to keep the nuns in their 
cloisters by means of an absolute enforcement of the Benedictine 
Rule. Visitatorial injunctions on this subject during the four- 
teenth and fifteenth centuries and up to the Reformation were 
based upon three enactments: the constitutions of the legate 
Ottobon in 1268, the vigorous reforms of Archbishop Peckham 
(1279-92) and the Bull Periculoso. The Cardinal Legate Ottobon 
had come to England in 1265, on the restoration of Henry III 
after Evesham, with the purpose of punishing bishops and 
clergy who had supported the party of Simon de Montfort and 
the barons. When peace was finally signed in 1267, largely by 
his intervention, he was able to turn his attention to general 
abuses prevalent in the English church and one of the reforms 
which he attempted to enforce was the stricter enclosure of nuns. 
Chapter lii of his Constitutions [Quod moniales a certis locis non 
exeant] is an amplification of the Benedictine rule of enclosure, 
made far more rigid and severe. "Lest by repeated intercourse 
with secular folk the quiet and contemplation of the nuns should 
be troubled," minute regulations were laid down as to their 
movements. They were allowed to enter their chapel, chapter, 

' "Cependant il n'y a gueres aujourd'hui de point de Discipline Ecclesi- 
astique qui soit ou plus neglige, ou plus ignore que celui de la cloture des 
Religieuses; et quoique les Conciles, les Saints Docteurs et les Pferes des 
Monasteres, ayent en divers temps et en divers rencontres, employ^ leur 
zSle et leur authorite pour en 6tablir la pratique; nous ne laissons pas 
neanmoins de voir souvent avec douleur qu'on le viole empun^ment, sans 
scrupule, sans reflexion et sans necessity. L'Eglise gemit tons les jours en 
veue de ce desordre qui la deshonore notablement; et c'est pour compatir 
en quelque fa9on h, ses gemissemens, que j'entrepreus de le combattre dans 
ce Traits." Op. cit. Preface. 


dorter and frater at due and fixed times; otherwise they were 
to remain in the cloister; and none of these places were to be 
entered by seculars, save very seldom and for some sufficient 
reason. No nun was to converse with any man, except seriously 
and in a pubhc place, and at least one other nun was always to 
be present at such conversations. No nun was to have a meal 
outside the house except with the permission of the superior 
and then only with a relative, or some person from whose 
company no suspicion could arise. All other places, beyond those 
specified, were entirely forbidden to the nuns, with the exception, 
in certain circumstances, of the infirmary. No nun was to go 
to the different offices, except the obedientiaries, whose duties 
rendered it necessary and they were never to go without a 
companion. The Abbess or head of the house was never to leave 
it, except for its evident advantage or for urgent necessity, and 
she was always to have an honest companion, while the lesser 
nuns were never to be given licence to go out, except for some 
fit cause and in company with another nun. Finally nuns were 
not to leave their convents for public processions, but were to 
hold their processions within the precincts of their own houses. 
The legate strictly enjoined that "the prelates to whose juris- 
diction belonged the visitation of each nunnery should cause 
these statutes to be observed "i 

It will be realised that these injunctions were exceedingly 
severe and that the visitors were not likely to find their task 
a sinecure. There is httle evidence for determining how far any 
serious attempt was made to enforce the legate's Constitutions 2, 
but if we may judge from the language of Peckham, some ten 
years later, any attempts which may have been made had not 
been strikingly successful. One of the first actions of this 
energetic archbishop on his elevation to the see of Canterbury 
was to carry out a visitation of the nunneries of Barking and 

^ Wilkins, Concilia, n. p. 18. 

^ See, however, the injunctions of Thomas of Cantilupe, Bishop of 
Hereford, to Lymbrook in 1277, which are in part a recital of Ottobou's 
Constitutions. Reg. Thome de Cantilupo, p. 201, Peckham, in the injunc- 
tions which he sent to Barking and Godstow in 1279, states that they are 
based respectively upon those issued by John de Chishull, Bishop of London, 
and by Robert de Kilwardby, his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, 
and it is probable that both of these prelates had attempted to enforce 
Ottobon's Constitutions. Reg. Epis. J . Peckham, i, p. 81 ; 11, p. 846. 


Godstow and to send to both houses injunctions laying great 
stress on strict enclosure (1279). I" 1281 he followed up these 
injunctions by two general decrees for the enclosure of nuns; 
and in 1284 he visited the three nunneries of Romsey, Holy 
Sepulchre (Canterbury) and Usk and sent injunctions enforcing 
the Constitutions of 1281I. In these injunctions he laid down 
with great exactness the conditions to be observed in granting 
nuns permission to leave their convents. The Godstow injunction 
runs thus: 

For the purpose of obtaining a surer witness to chastity, we ordain 
that nuns shall not leave the precincts of the monastery, save for 
necessary business which cannot be performed by any other persons. 
Hence we condemn for ever, by these present [letters] those sojourns 
which were wont to be made in the houses of friends, for the sake of 
pleasure and of escaping from discipline [ad solatium et ad subterfugium 
disciplinae]. And when it shall befall any [nuns] to go out for any 
necessity, we strictly order these four [conditions] to be observed. 
First, that they be permitted to go out only in safe and mature com- 
pany, as well of nuns as of secular persons helping them. Secondly 
that having at once performed their business, so far as it can be by 
them performed, they return to their house ; and if the performance 
of the business demand a delay of several days, after the first or second 
day it shall be left to proctors to finish it. Thirdly that they never 
lodge in the precincts of men of reUgion or in the houses of clergy, or 
in other suspected habitations. Fourthly that no one absent herself 
from the sight of her companion or companions, in any place where 
human conversation might be held, nor hsten to any secret whispering, 
except in the presence of the nuns her companions, unless perchance 
father or mother, brother or sister have something private to say to 

The Barking injunctions are slightly different and the first con- 
dition imposed therein is interesting: "That they be sent forth 
only for a necessary and inevitable cause, that is in particular 
the imminent death of a parent, beyond which cause we can 
hardly imagine any other which would be sufficient"^. These 
injunctions are very severe, since they limit the occasions upon 
which a nun might leave her convent to the performance of 
some negotiation connected with the business of the house and 

' He visited Wherwell in the same year, but his inj unctions to that house 
dealt with the entrance of seculars into the nunnery, not with the exit of 

^ Reg. Epis. J. Peckham, 11, p. 247. » lb. i, pp. 85-6. 


to attendance at the deathbeds of relatives and entirely forbid 
all visits for pleasure to the houses of friends. 

In 1281 Peckham published a mandate directed against the 
seducers of nuns; after excommunicating all who committed or 
attempted to commit this crime and declaring that absolution 
for the sentence could be given only by a Bishop or by the Pope 
(except on the point of death), he proceeded to deal with the 
question of the enclosure of nuns, on the ground that their 
wandering in the world gave opportunity for such crimes, and 
sternly forbade them to pay visits for the sake of recreation, 
even to the closest relatives, or to remain out of their houses 
for more than two days on business^. The same year he also 
dealt with the subject in the course of a set of constitutions, 
concerning various abuses, which he considered to be in need 
of reform. The language of the chapter in which he treats of 
the claustration of nuns is in parts the same as that of the 
ordinance against seducers, but it is less severe, for it enacts 
only that nuns shall not stay "more than three natural days 
for the sake of recreation, or more than six days for any necessary 
reason, save in case of illness." Moreover the Archbishop adds: 
"we do not extend this ordinance to those who are obliged to 
beg necessities of life, while they are begging "2. It was this 
modified version of his ordinance which he tried to impose in 
his, visitation of 1284, for at Romsey he recognised that the nuns 
might be leaving the house for recreation and not merely upon 

"■ Reg. Epis. J. Peckham, i, pp. 265-6, and in Wilkins, op. cit. 11, p. 61. 

^ Wilkins, op. cit. 11, pp. 53-9. Thiers' remarks on the practice of begging 
by nuns are interesting in this connection. He contends that only sheer 
famine justifies the breach of enclosure and adds: "C'est pourquoy je ne 
comprends pas d'oii vient que nous voyons a Paris et ailleurs, tant de 
Religieuses, quelquefois assez jeunes et assez bien faites qui sous pretexte 
que leurs Mouasteres sont dans le besoin, demandent I'aumone aux portes 
des Eglises, qui courent par les maisons des seculiers et qui demeurent un 
temps considerable hors de leurs Monasteres, le plus souvent sans s9avoir 
ne la vie ni les moeurs des personnes qui exercent I'hospitalit^ envers elles. 
On rendroit, ce me semble, un grand service k, I'Eglise si on les reduisoit 
aux termes de la Bulla de Gregoire XIII. Deo sacris, qui leur procure les 
moyens de subsister honnestement dans leurs Monasteres, sans rompre leur 
cloture. Car ainsi les gens de bien ne seroient point scandalisez de leurs 
sorties ne de leurs courses, et elles feroient incomparablement mieux leur 
salut dans leurs Convents que dans le Monde, oil je n'estime pas qu'elles 
puissent rester en seuret6 de conscience." He quotes an ordinance of the 
General of the Franciscan Order in 1609, forbidding even the sisters of the 
Tertiary Order to beg. Thiers, op. cit. pp. 167-9. 


the business of the convent ; the Abbess, for instance, is to take 
her three coadjutresses with her when she goes out on business, 
and two of them if she go causa solatii. At this house he forbade 
nuns to go out without a companion, or to stay for more than 
three days with seculars and condemned their practice of eating 
and drinking in the town; no nun, either on leaving or returning 
to the convent, was to enter any house in the town of Romsey, 
or to eat or drink there, and no cleric or secular man or woman 
was to give them any food outside the precincts^. At St Sepulchre 
(Canterbury) Peckham regulated the visits of nuns to confessors 
outside the house, and at Usk he ordered that no nun was to go 
out without suitable companions, or to stay more than three 
or four days in the houses of secular persons^. 

The next effort made in England to enforce enclosure upon 
nuns was the result of Boniface VIII's Bull Periculoso. Bishops' 
registers about the year 1300 sometimes contain copies of this 
severe enactment. One of the earliest efforts to carry it out was 
made by Simon of Ghent, Bishop of Salisbury, who on November 
28th, 1299, issued a long letter to the Abbess of Wilton (obviously 
inserted in the register as a specimen of a circular sent to each 
nunnery in the diocese), embodying the text of the bull and 
ordering her to put it into force, and in 1303 he issued a mandate 
for the enclosure of the nuns of Shaftesbury, Wilton, Amesbury, 
Lacock, Tarrant Keynes and Kington^. The Register of Godfrey 
Giffard, Bishop of Worcester, contains a note in the year 1300 : 

As to the shutting up of nuns. It is expedient that a letter of warning 
be sent according to the form of the constitution and directed to every 
house of nuns, that they do what is necessary for their inclusion and 
cause themselves to be enclosed this side the Gule of August. 

The Bishop seems however from the beginning to have doubted 
his capacity to carry out the decree, for further on the register 
contains another note, "As to whether it is expedient to enclose 
the nuns of the diocese of Worcester"*. An undated note of 
Inhibiciones facte monialihus de Werewell in the Register of John 
of Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester, among other documents be- 
longing to 1299-1300, is probably in part a result of Periculoso: 

1 Reg. Epis. J. Peckham, 11, pp. 659, 664-5. 

^ lb. II, pp. 707, 806. ' Reg. Simonis de Gandavo, pp. 10 ff., 109. 

' Reg. Godfrey Giffard, 11, pp. 515, 517, 


We forbid on pain of excommunication any nun or sister to go outside 
the bounds of the monastery until we have made some ordinance 
concerning enclosure. Item let no one be received as nun or sister 
until we have enquired more fully into the resources of the house. 
Item we order the abbess to remove all secular women and to receive 
none henceforth as boarders in their house. Item let her permit no 
secular clerk or layman to enter the cloister to speak with the nuns^ 

But the most detailed information as to the efforts of a con- 
scientious bishop to enforce Boniface VIII's decree in England 
is contained in the Register of Bishop Dalderby of Lincoln. 
Dalderby was a new broom in the diocese and he determined 
to sweep clean. On June 17th, 1300, he directed a mandate to 
the archdeacons of his diocese ordering each to associate with 
himself some other mature and honest man and to visit the 
religious houses in his own archdeaconry, explaining the terms 
of the new bull intelligibly to the nuns and ordering them to 
remain within their nunneries and to permit no one to enter 
the precincts contrary to the tenour of the decree, until the Bishop 
should be able to visit them in person; the heads of the houses 
were to be specially warned to carry out the decree and for better 
security a sealed copy of it was to be deposited in each house 
by the commissioners^. 

In the course of the next two months Dalderby visited, 
either in person or by commissioners, Marlow, Burnham, Flam- 
stead, Markyate, Elstow, Goring, Studley, Godstow, Delapre 
(Northampton) and Sewardsley^. At each house the bull was 
carefuUy explained to the nuns in the vulgar tongue, they were 
ordered to obey it and a copy was left with them. But this 
campaign was not unattended with difficulties. The nuns were 
bitterly opposed to the restriction of a freedom to which they 
were accustomed and which they heartily enjoyed, and an entry 
in Dalderby's Register, describing his visitation of Markyate, 
shows that even in the middle ages a bishop's lot was not a 
happy one : 

On July 3rd, in the first year [of his consecration], the Bishop visited 
the house of nuns of Markyate and on the following day he caused 
to be recited before the nuns of the same [house] in chapter the statute 
put forth by the lord Pope Boniface VIII concerning the enclosure 

1 Reg. J. de Pontissara, p. 546. 

2 Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, t. 9. 
' lb. fif. gd, lod, II, I2d, i^d. 


of nuns, explained it in the vulgar tongue and giving them a copy of 
the same statute under his seal, ordered them in virtue of obedience 
henceforth to observe it in the matter of enclosure and of all things 
contained in it, and especially to close all doors by which entrance is 
had into the inner places of their house and to permit no person, 
whether dishonest or honest, to enter in to them, without reasonable 
and manifest cause and licence from the person to whom [the granting 
of such a licence] pertains. Furthermore he specially enjoined the 
Prioress to observe the said statute in all its articles and to cause it 
to be observed by the others. But when the Bishop was going away, 
certain of the nuns, disobedient to these injunctions, hurled the said 
statute at his back and over his head, and as well the Prioress as the 
convent appeared to consent to those who threw it, following the 
bishop to the outer gate of the house and declaring unanimously that 
they were not content in any way to observe such a statute. On 
account of which, the Bishop, who was then directing his steps to 
Dunstable, returned the next day and having made inquisition as to 
the matters concerned in the said statute, imposed a penance on four 
nuns, whom he found guilty and on the whole convent for their con- 
sent, as is more fully contained in his letters of correction sent to the 
aforesaid house. 

Afterwards he sent letters to the recalcitrant convent warning 
them for the third time (they had already been warned once by 
the Official of the Archdeacon of Bedford and a second time at 
the visitation which has just been described) to keep the new 
decree, on pain of the major excommunication, from which only 
the Pope could absolve them^. 

There was opposition at other convents, too, though we hear 
of no more attacks on the episcopal shoulders. On August igth 
Dalderby wrote as follows to Master Benedict de Feriby, rector 
of Broughton, Northants (a church in the presentation of the 
Abbess and Convent of Delapre) : 

It has come to our ears, by clamorous rumour, that some of the nuns 
of our diocese, spurning good obedience, slackening the reins of 
honesty and shamelessly casting aside the modesty of their sex, 
despise the papal statute concerning enclosure directed to them, as 
well as our injunctions made to them upon the subject, and frequent 
cities and other public places outside their monasteries, and mingle 
in the haunts of men ; 

he proceeded to order Feriby to visit nunneries wherever he 
considered it expedient to do so, and to punish those who were 
guilty of breaking the statute, signifying to the Bishop, by a 

^ Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, f. lod. 


certain date, the names of all who had been accused of doing so, 
whether they had been found guilty or not^ This mandate is 
no doubt in part explained by two other letters which he dis- 
patched on the same day; one of them was directed to the 
Archdeacon of Northampton and set forth (in language which 
often repeats verbatim the phrases of the papal bull) that at the 
Bishop's recent visitation of Delapre (Northampton) he had 
found three nuns in apostasy, having cast off their habits after 
being a long time professed, and left their house to live a secular 
life in the world^. The other letter contains a sentence of the 
greater excommunication against a nun of Sewardsley, for similar 
conduct^- These cases of apostasy were less rare than might be ^ 
imagined; Dalderby had to deal with two others during his 
episcopate, one at St Michael's, Stamford*, and the other at 
Goring*; and during the rule of his predecessor Sutton three 
nuns had escaped from Godstow and one from Wothorpe *. They 
illustrate the undoubted truth that it was only the existence 
(already in the thirteenth century) of very grave disorders, which 
led reformers hke Ottobon, Peckham and Boniface VIII to 
"beat the air" with such severe restrictions. 

These three documents, the Constitutions of Ottobon and of 
Peckham and the Bull Periculoso, were the standard decrees on 
the subject of the claustration of nuns in England and were 
used as a model by visitors in the thirteenth and fourteenth 
centuries. Wilham of Wykeham, for example, in the exceptionally 
fuU and formal injunctions which he sent to Romsey and to 
Wherwell in 1387 continually refers by name to Ottobon and 
to Peckham, and the wording of the BuU Periculoso is followed 
verbatim in the mandate directed by Bishop Grandisson of 
Exeter to Canonsleigh in 1329 and in the commission sent by 
his successor Bishop Brantyngham to two canons of Exeter in 
1376, concerning the wanderings of the nuns of Polsloe. But a / 
study of the visitation documents of the thirteenth and fourteenth ' 
centuries makes it clear that the nuns never really made any 
attempt to obey the regulations which imposed a strict enclosure 
upon them; and that the bishops upon whom fell the brunt of 

1 Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Dalderby, i. ^^d. ^ lb. f. 16. See below, p. 441. 
^ lb. ■* Agnes Flixthorpe. See below, p. 443. * lb. t. 152. 

" Line. Epis. Reg. Memo. Sutton, ff. 5^, 32^, 154. For these and other 
cases of apostasy see Chap, xi, passim. 

P.N. 23 


administering Periculoso themselves allowed a considerable lati- 
tude, directing their efforts towards regulating the conditions 
under which nuns left their convents, rather than to keeping 
them within the precincts. Le mieux est Vennemi du Men and 
the steady opposition of the nuns forced a compromise upon 
their visitors. The canonist John of Ayton, reciting the decrees 
of Ottobon and of Boniface, with their injunction that bishops 
shall "cause them to be observed," exclaims 

Cause to be observed ! But surely there is scarce any mortal man who 
could do this: we must therefore here understand "so far as Ueth in 
the prelate's power." For the nuns answer round!}' to these statutes 
or to any others promulgated against their wantonness, saying " In 
truth the men who made these laws sat well at their ease, while they 
laid such burdens upon us by these hard and intolerable restrictions ! " 
Wherefore we see in fact that these statutes are a dead letter or are 
ill-kept at the best. Why, then, did the holy fathers thus labour to 
beat the air? Yet indeed their toil is none the less to their own merit; 
for we look not to that which is but to that which of justice should be'^. 

Dalderby's experience at Markyate shows that John of Ayton's 
picture was not too highly coloured, and since it was impossible 
to enforce "hard and intolerable restrictions" without at least 
a measure of co-operation from the nuns themselves, the bishops 
took the only course open to them in trying to minimise the 
evil. Their expedients deserve some study, and as a typical 
set of episcopal injunctions dealing with journeys by nuns out- 
side their cloisters it will suffice to quote those sent by Walter 
Stapeldon, Bishop of Exeter, to the nunneries of Polsloe and 
Canonsleigh. These rules were drawn up in 1319, only twenty 
years after the publication of the Bull Periculoso, but they are 
already far removed from the strict ideal of Boniface VIII. 
Stapeldon was a practical statesman and he evidently realised 
that the enforcement of strict enclosure was impossible in a 
diocese where the nuns had been used to considerable freedom 
and where all the counties of the West saw them upon their 

The clauses dealing with the subject run as follows: 

De visitacione amicorum. No lady of religion is to go and visit her 
friends outside the priory, but if it be once a year at the most and then 
for reasonable cause and by permission; and then let her have a 

1 Lyndwood, Provinciate (1679), Pt 11, p. 155. Quoted by Mr Coulton 
in Med. Studies, No. 10, "Monastic Schools in the Middle Ages," p. 21. 


companion professed in the same religion, not of her own choice, 
but whomsoever the Prioress will assign to her and she who is once 
assigned to her for companion shall not be assigned the next time, 
so that each time a lady goes to visit her friends her companion is 
changed; and if she have permission to go to certain places to visit 
her friends, let her not go to other places without new permission. 
De absencia Dominarum et regressu eanmi. Item, when any lady of 
religion eats at Exeter, or in another place near by, for reasonable 
cause and by permission, whenever she can she ought to return the 
same or the following day and each time let her have a companion 
and a chaplain, clerk or serving-man of good repute assigned by the 
prioress, who shall go, remain and return with them and otherwise 
they shall not go; and then let them return speedily to the house, as 
they be commanded, and let them not go again to Exeter, wandering 
from house to house, as they have oftentimes done, to the dishonour 
of their state and of religion. De Dominabus " Wakerauntes" [i.e. 
vagantibus]. Item, a lady who goes a long distance to visit her friends, 
in the aforesaid form, should return to the house within a month at 
the latest, or within a shorter space if it be assigned her by the Prioress, 
having regard to the distance or proximity of the place, where dwell 
the friends whom she is going to visit, but a longer term ought the 
Prioress never to give her, save in the case of death, or of the known 
illness of herself or of her near friends. Pena Dominarum Vagancium. 
And if a lady remain without for a long time or in any other manner 
than in the form aforesaid, let her never set foot outside the outer 
gate of the Priory for the next two years ; and nevertheless let her be 
punished otherwise for disobedience, in such manner as is laid down 
by the rule and observances of the order of St Benet for the fault; 
and leave procured by the prayer of her friends ought not to excuse 
her from this penance^. No lady of your reUgion, professed or un- 
professed, shaU come to the external offices outside the door of the 
cloister to be bled or for any other feigned excuse, save it be by leave 
of the Prioress or of the Subprioress, and then for a fit reason and let 
her have with her another professed lady of your rehgion, to the end 
that each of them may see and hear that which the other shall say 
and do^. 

' Apparently friends and relatives in the world outside sometimes 
intervened, by threats or prayers, to save a nun from punishment. A com- 
pertum of Archbishop Giffard's visitation of Swine in 1267-8 runs; "Item 
compertum est that the Prioress is a suspicious woman and far too credulous, 
and easily breaks out into correction, and often punishes some unequally 
for equal faults, and follows with long dislike those whom she dislikes until 
occasion arise to punish them; hence it is that the nuns, when they suspect 
that they are going to be troubled with excessive correction, procure the 
mitigation of her severity by means of the threats of their kinsfolk." Reg. 
Walter Giffard, p. 147. 

^ Reg. Walter de Stapeldon, p. 317. Cf. p. 95. When the London mob 
had beheaded Stapeldon in Cheapside, his place was filled (after the short 
rule of Berkeley) by an even greater bishop, John Grandisson, who, in the 

23 — 2 


The main lines along which the bishops attempted to regulate 
the movements of the nuns outside their houses appear clearly 
in these injunctions. It was their invariable practice to forbid 
unlicensed visits, in accordance with the Benedictine rule; no 
nun might leave her house without a licence from her superior 
and such licences were not to be granted too easily^ or with any 
show of favouritism 2; sometimes the licence of the Bishop was 
required as welP. Such licences were not to be granted often 
(once a year is usually the specified rule)* and the bishops some- 
times tried to confine the visits of nuns to parents or to near 
relatives^. An attempt was also made to regulate the length of 

year of his consecration, directed a mandate to the nuns of Canonsleigh 
in which he attempted to carry out more closely than his predecessor, though 
still not exactly, the terms of Periculoso. He forbade the abbess to allow 
any nuns to leave the precincts before his visitation "that is to such a 
distance that it is not possible for them to return the same day." This was 
on June 23rd 1329; a month later he was obliged to compromise, for on 
July i8th he sent a licence to Canonsleigh, recapitulating his form